The Aral sea

The Aral Sea is located in both Kazakhstan and Uzbeckistan


What’s the problem?

Once the world’s fourth largest body of saline water, Central Asia’s Aral Sea has been rapidly shrinking since the 1960s as a result of industrial demands for water in the Soviet region of it’s basin.

In the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 60% of its area and 80% of its volume as a result of the annual abstractions of water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – the rivers which feed the Aral Sea – to grow cotton in the desert.

Cotton fields
Cotton requires high levels of water to grow. To promote rapid growth in the cotton and food industries, the Soviet government opted to divert the two major rivers feeding the sea to irrigate the surrounding desert.

84%: The proportion of water footprint of cotton consumption in the EU25 region which is located outside Europe, with major impacts particularly in India and Uzbekistan.

Although Uzbekistan has profitted in an industrial sense becoming one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, the resulting environmental catastrophe has had far reaching consequences.

Spreading desertification, the destruction of a thriving fishing industry, climate fluctuations and chemical pollution are the key components of this ecological disaster.

As a direct result of the sea’s high sodium content and industrial pollution, an alarming number of cases of cancer, T.B and kidney failure have been identified amongst local inhabitants, with infant mortality recorded as the worst of any developing country.

For the period 1997-2001 the study shows that the worldwide consumption of cotton products requires 256 Gm3 of water per year. Impacts are typically cross-border.


Hope for the future
A project launched by the Kazakh government and the World Bank has seen the water in the sundered northern part of the Aral Sea increase by 30 per cent in the past five years. This is due to dams and measures to remove river bottlenecks built during Soviet times.

A growth in sea-life and the reintroduction of fishing brings some hope to the area, however the huge demand for cotton in the West casts strong doubts over whether the world’s worst disaster can ever be successfully reversed.

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