In early April 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, looking out over a desert that had once been the shore of a vibrant lake teeming with life, described the retreat of the Aral Sea as “One of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.” On his swing tour through former Soviet Central Asia, Ki-Moon touched down in the Uzbek town of Muynak after touring the region by helicopter. Muynak, a city in the province of Karakalpakstan, used to be a healthy fishing port of tens of thousands but is now the epicentre of an environmental and health disaster. The Aral Sea is now over 150 km from the derelict pier at Muynak and standing on it, staring across what was once the sea bed, Ki-Moon said, “I wasn’t seeing anything; I could see only a graveyard of ships.”
The Aral was once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, covering 68,000 sq km and surpassed only by the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior and Lake Victoria, and was home to dozens of varieties of marine life making it a key resource in the Soviet Union. However, in the 1960s, Soviet economic planners decided that much of Central Asia should be given over entirely to the production of cotton in an effort to out produce the United States. Thousands of hectares of land were planted with cotton but to achieve this monumental project, the Soviet Union dammed and redirected the two major rivers that feed the Aral. The Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which are fed by snowfields and high glaciers in the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, now only trickle into the sea as their water is used to feed cotton, one of the world thirstiest crops. As a result the Aral Sea has lost 75 per cent of its surface, causing the sea to break up into a smaller northern section near Kazakhstan and a larger but drier southern section near Uzbekistan. How has the retreat of the Aral Sea affected the region that once relied on it so much? Why are efforts to refill the sea proceeding so slowly? Is it possible to save the Aral Sea and those in its vicinity?