The Aral Sea was once the fourth biggest inland sea in the world. With abundant fish resources, and a busy shipping trade, the Sea provided a healthy livelihood for several hundred thousand people. 

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project from this sea to the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The region’s two major rivers, fed from snowmelt and precipitation in faraway mountains, were used to transform the desert into fields for cotton and other crops. These were never suitable for this environment in the first place.  

The flow of water into the Aral Sea began to drop alarmingly. Upstream irrigation schemes consumed, like a sponge, more than ninety per cent of the natural flow.   

Although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea which lost more than 80% of its volume.  

The sea level declined 14 meters. Salt concentration doubled. 

Essentially the sea was split in two, a Southern and Northern Sea. 

In a desperate attempt to keep their vessels in the shrinking Aral, channels were dredged to the open sea, a futile exercise, as the sea receded faster than the channels could be built. 

As the sea dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. 

Of the region’s 73 species of birds, 70 of mammals and 24 of fish, most have either perished or moved on. 

The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed sea bed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the sea bed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier. 

The area is now constantly subject to toxic dust storms and desertification, the people of the area have 9 times the world average rate for throat cancer, and infant/maternity mortality is the highest in all of the former Soviet Union’s republics. Respiratory complications, tuberculosis and eye diseases are also on the rise. 

Matters were not made any better  with Vozrozdeniya Island -growing larger since 1960(due to the receding sea) it joined the mainland in 2001, and added another cruel ingredient to the Aral disaster. Vozrozdeniya was a secret Soviet Army research and biological weapons facility until 1992, dealing reportedly in anthrax and plague that now has the potential to migrate. Ironically, Vozrozdeniya is Russian for ‘rebirth’ or ‘renaissance’. 

The Aral Sea Area is not just an environmental disaster, but a health and human tragedy as well, all of human doing.  

Surely this must rank as one of mankind’s darkest environmental blights in recent times? 

Attempts in 1992 and 1997 to build a 14 km long dyke between the north and the south Aral (the south being abandoned, the north reflooded) was successful for 9 and 12 months respectively, until they were both breached by the weight of the water, and the fact that only enough money was available to build an inherently weak sand structure. 

The future looks bleak for the south Aral, but dependant on the desire of the nations bordering the Aral -and how much cash is available, the north Aral may have a chance. 

Preserving or restoring the Aral depends on limiting water use, a volatile issue in a region of ethnic tensions. 

Only a huge injection of money and cooperation between the former five Soviet states can save the Aral, but convincing the five to work together will not be easy, as all have competing economic interests. 

With a grant from the World Bank, and funds from the Kazakh government, a new dam/dyke has been built.

Far more robust than the first two, this dam may prove to be the Northern Aral’s best chance yet. 

For all the indignities it has suffered, the Aral has been generous in defeat.  

In a cruel twist of fate it has yielded vast oil and gas reserves in its dried up sea bed. Unfortunately it would appear however that the spoils have been largely divided between Chinese investors and their Uzbekistan patrons, with little trickling down to the locals. 

And to think this was once a body of water that stretched for 100’s of kms, sustaining all types of life.  

Here are some pictures of our trip to this remote and desolate region.




The plateau used to be the shoreline.


Now it is only sage bush.


Our first sighting of the ships in the desert.


And more ….








Channels were dredged to the open sea, a futile exercise.


The Aral Sea in 1970.


The Aral Sea in 2009.


Moynaq used to be the home of many fishermen. Now it is almost deserted.