The Aral Sea is one of these places that most have never heard of, but a small number who know exactly what it is, where it is and what happened, and then the rest who have sort of heard of it and have a vague idea why it’s such an important place and lesson, but not really sure of the detail.
Considered by many to be the worst environmental disaster the world has known, the Aral Sea lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, with the border running through the middle of this quickly diminishing body of water. Before Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan got their independence from the Soviet Union, the entire sea was inside the USSR. The sea itself is fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which primarily exist due to snow melt at their sources in the Tajik mountains.
The Aral Sea had been used for centuries for irrigation and fishing and was recorded to get bigger and smaller depending on rain fall and glacial melt, however even during years of little inflow, the Aral always managed to bounce back. That was until 1960 and the Virgin Lands Campaign that the Soviets introduced to increase cotton and grain production. Huge irrigation projects were instituted where up to 90% of the inflow was diverted through extremely inefficient means to make otherwise unusable land useable.
Between 1960 and 1980 alone, the sea dropped a massive 20 metres, which in turn meant the water got saltier and many of the fish died, effectively destroying the fishing industry. With the independence of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, things only got worse as the two countries couldn’t come to any agreements on how to effectively cut back on their water usage to try and save the Aral.
Today, the Aral Sea is a tenth of its original size and only getting smaller. It has led to some amazing, albeit very sad sites, such as the port town of Moynak in Uzbekistan that is 100s of kilometres from the shoreline. Hundreds of fishing boats left stranded on dry sea floors. The Soviets even built a chemical and germ warfare production site on a secluded island in the middle of the sea, except it’s now no longer an island and has been abandoned. There are reportedly still supplies of anthrax at the facility being left unguarded.
The destruction of the sea is the first complete ecosystem collapse and has led to massive temperature rises in the immediate area as the sea acted as a cooling site for the surrounding environment. Likewise, when strong winds blow it now picks up the salty dust of the seabed, causing increased breathing problems and other negative impacts on locals’ health. Although it’s difficult to prove a direct causal link, the area surrounding the Aral Sea now has unusually high levels of cancer and other fatal diseases.
Getting there isn’t the easiest as it takes a whole day of driving on the Uzbekistan side from the city of Nukus , and you’ll need to stay overnight. On the Kazakhstan side, Aralsk is the main town near the Aral Sea and is a 36-hour train ride from the major city of Almaty. Once there you can see the environmental destruction for yourself and even go for a swim if you’re brave enough. The water has a weird film like nature which immediately sticks to your skin, so you’ll need to shower immediately afterwards.
If you’d like to see this for yourself, have a look at all our upcoming Uzbekistan tours .