Geography H/W – The Disappearing Aral Sea Essay

This essay intends to first introduce the disappearing Aral Sea, which due to the extensive agricultural activities devised by the Soviet government in the region, the former fourth-largest lake of the world is now the world’s eighth largest lake. This has resulted in perhaps the world’s most prominent man-made ecological disaster, giving its location and background knowledge with a map, and then describe its future in terms of how it is going to be utilized and what the consequences are, and then finally state what can be done about this “crisis”. @.

The Aral Sea is located in the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Due to its location in the center of a vast mainland far from oceans, the Aral Sea maintains a continental climate. Temperatures in the region go up as high as 40 degrees Celsius in the summer and in winters the temperature falls down to -20 degrees Celsius with minimal precipitation. The main volume of surface waters is consisted of thawed water from high glaciers, feeding the two recently largest rivers of the region: the Amu Darya (Located in Eastern Central Asia, 2580 km long) and the Syr Darya: (2,220 km long).

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It was generally very shallow, attaining a maximum depth of c. 180 ft (58 m). In the 1950s the Soviet Union decided to cultivate cotton in the region, and since the early 1960s the Syr Darya and Amu Darya have been used for large-scale irrigation, causing a drop in the flow of freshwater into the sea. The sea is, as a result, now greatly reduced, mainly occupying three basins in the central, western, and northern sections of its lakebed. It is about a third of its former size in area and less than an eighth in volume.

The sea formerly supported local fishing and was navigable from Muinak to Aral. As the Aral has retreated from its former shores, due to the combined effects of evaporation and water diversion, major environmental problems have resulted. The quality of the remaining water has deteriorated, increased salinity has killed fish, and the health of those living along the shore has suffered. Regional weather has been affected as well, becoming harsher as the sea’s moderating climatic influence has diminished.

Vozrozhdeniye, the site of a Soviet germ warfare waste dump, is a former island that is no longer isolated from the surrounding region; in 2001 the United States agreed to help clean up the site. Geologically separate from the Caspian Sea since the last Ice Age, the Aral Sea was once only slightly saline. The United Nations has estimated that the sea will essentially disappear by 2020 if nothing is done to reverse its decline, but in 2003 construction began on a dike to enclose the smaller northern section, in an attempt to revive at least that. The drying up of the Aral Sea is also negatively affecting the region’s climate.

Earlier, the Aral Sea acted as a climate regulator for the region: it softened cold Siberian winds in winters and acted as a conditioner lowering heat in summer months. The sea’s shrinkage has resulted in drier and shorter summers, and in longer and colder winters. The growing season has been shortened to 170 days (while 200 is necessary for cotton production). Precipitation on shore in the Aral region has decreased by a factor of 10, the humidity of air has decreased by 10%, summer temperatures have increased and winter temperatures decreased by + 2-3 degrees centigrade.

The productivity of pasture-grounds half its previous level. The pollution effect is aggravated by the fact that the Aral Sea is situated on the “highway” where strong currents of air are blowing from the West to the East. This promotes carrying up of aerosols to higher layers of atmosphere and spreading of them around the Earth. That is why pesticides from the Aral region are found out in blood of penguins in the Antarctic Continent. The distinctive Aral dust is falling on glaciers of Greenland, on forests of Norway, and on fields of Belorussia, which are remote from Central Asia by thousands kilometers.

The other dangerous consequence of desiccation of the Aral Sea is a degradation of mountain glaciers of the Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Tien Shan and the Altais, which feed the Syrdarya and the Amudarya Rivers. An increase of toxic dust on the surfaces of glaciers and mineralization of precipitation are promoting melting of the glaciers. This is a dangerous process for an arid region because mountain glaciers of Central Asia are the only ancient reserves of fresh water and the main place for condensation of atmospheric moisture in the region.

If the “cover” of sedimentation continues to accrue, the glaciers will not be condensers of moisture any more and there will be a decrease in drainage to the rivers. What affects nature, however, also affects humans. The process of environmental degradation in the Aral region has led to a socioeconomic crisis. As a result of the pollution and ensuing poverty, the region has highest rates of children mortality in the former Soviet Union (75 for 1,000 births) and high rates of maternal mortality (about 120 for 10,000 confinements).

Diseases of destitution are widespread: infectious and parasitic ones, such as typhus, paratyphus, hepatitis, and also tuberculosis. In epicenter of the ecological disaster there are widely spread anemia, malfunction of thyroid gland, diseases of kidney and liver. Additionally, there are abnormally high levels of blood diseases, cancer, asthma, and heart disease, all of which can be linked to the ecological disaster. Furthermore, in the Aral region there is a shortage of water. A rural inhabitant receives only 15 liters instead of the normal 125 liters, and an urban one receives 40 liters while in the country the average rate is 550 liters.

In the crisis zone people fail to receive water sometimes for several days at a time. It has also led to an economic disaster as the main industries of the region have all collapsed. Changes in salt content of the Aral Sea and loss of the biota have led to complete crash of fishery and processing industries and that resulted in unemployment of 60,000 people connected with sea jobs. In 1996 only 547 tons of fish were caught in the destroyed deltas of the Syrdarya and Amudarya rivers and 100 tons of this amount were plaices.

A high content of poisonous pesticides is found in those fish that are caught. In recent years, Kazakhstan, the wealthier of the two nations that border the Aral Sea, has tried to maintain at least some of the former lake by repairing irrigation canals to improve water flow. More importantly, they built a dam to separate the North Aral Sea from the South. Since the dam was complete in 2005, water levels in the North Aral have risen by 8 meters, fish stocks are starting to come back, and the lake’s salinity has decreased.

There are even signs that the local microclimate is improving, with increased precipitation. Work is being done to restore in part the North Aral Sea. Irrigation works on the Syr Darya have been repaired and improved to increase its water flow, and in October 2003, the Kazakh government announced a plan to build Dike Kokaral, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea. Work on this dam was completed in August 2005; since then the water level of the North Aral has risen, and its salinity has decreased.

As of 2006, some recovery of sea level has been recorded, sooner than expected. “The dam has caused the small Aral’s sea level to rise swiftly to 38 m (125 ft), from a low of less than 30 m (98 ft), with 42 m (138 ft) considered the level of viability. ” Economically significant stocks of fish have returned, and observers who had written off the North Aral Sea as an environmental disaster were surprised by unexpected reports that in 2006 its returning waters were already partly reviving the fishing industry and producing catches for export as far as Ukraine.

The restoration reportedly gave rise to long absent rain clouds and possible microclimate changes, bringing tentative hope to an agricultural sector swallowed by a regional dustbowl, and some expansion of the shrunken sea. “The sea, which had receded almost 100 km (62 mi) south of the port-city of Aral, is now a mere 25 km (16 mi) away. ” The Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated that “The North Aral Sea’s surface increased from 2,550 square kilometers (985 square miles) in 2003 to 3,300 square kilometers (1,275 square miles) in 2008. The sea’s depth increased from 30 meters (98 ft) in 2003 to 42 meters (138 ft) in 2008. Now, a second dam is to be built based on a World Bank loan to Kazakhstan, with the start of construction slated for 2009, to further expand the shrunken Northern Aral, eventually reducing the distance to Aralsk to only 6 km (3. 7 mi). Then, it was planned to build a canal spanning the last 6 km, to reconnect the withered former port of Aralsk with the sea In the south, Uzbekistan seems to show little desire to rehabilitate the South Aral Sea. Cotton is the nation’s primary cash crop, and the people of this region are extremely poor to begin with.

They don’t have the resources to upgrade the irrigation like Kazakhstan did, and they need the cotton crops. So they will continue to drain the river that should be feeding the lake. Rather than trying to rehabilitate the lake, they are instead discussing opening the desiccated lake bed to oil exploration. The Aral Sea disaster was caused by human mismanagement of a natural resource. In the beginning, the Soviet Union simply did not care, and the Aral Sea was one of many Soviet projects with the stated goal of taming nature. The nations that inherited this calamity are desperately oor, and need the cash provided by the near-destruction of the lake. It is difficult for us in the comfortable west to blame them.

They do not have the resources or alternative economic opportunities that would allow them to make changes, especially Uzbekistan. If we want to effect change, then we must help with diversifying their economy. It will largely be up to the industrialized nations of the world to lift the developing nations past the roadblocks that our centuries of waste and consumption have thrown up in the path, if we are going to get the whole world past the mess that humanity has created.

Many feel that it is beyond hope. Due to protection efforts, however, the sea level has not shrunk as much as had been forecasted. Nonetheless, the problems will continue well into the future. One unforeseen problem that has received international attention lately is the possibility that a land bridge will emerge between the shore and an island in the middle of the sea upon which the Soviet government conducted biological and chemical tests. This means that humans and animals could have walking access to such toxic substances as anthrax.