Desertification is the process by which a habitable place of land becomes a desert due to climatic changes or ill human practices in the environment. The Aral Sea is a victim to such adversity due to malpractices and power hungry nature of humans. Thus becoming a saline lake from its previous form of being the 4th largest lake in the world. It used to be the leading site of fisheries, reed growing and other trading due to its ports. All these services have been vanquished due to the desertification which seeped into the sea and its atmosphere. Thereby becoming one of the world’s greatest disasters caused humans. People have always had a greed for power and gold. Such was an instance for the Soviet Government in the 1960’s. The need to grow heat absorbing crops such as rice, cotton, grapes and other vegetables made two prime rivers – The Amu Darya and The Syr Darya, feeding the Aral Sea to be diverted to irrigate the crops. Due to such malpractices the Aral Sea shrunk in size from being the world’s 4th largest sea to a dry barren sea basin. But even though they have caused an ecological disaster, actions are now being taken to replenish the sea of its thirst and recover it back to its natural beauty.
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The Aral Sea :
The Aral Sea has a catchment size of 1,549,000 km2 . It was a sea that situated in Central Asia and lay between Kazakhstan in the north and Karakalpakstan, (a region of Uzbekistan) in the south. It used to have an area of 68,000 square kilometers and it was due to the two main rivers, in fact the 2 largest rivers in central Asia the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya to fill up the sea. Around 1960, about half of this water replenished the Sea the rest evaporated, transpired, or filtrated into the ground naturally as the rivers flowed through the deserts and some was taken for other human uses.
Everything was going well keeping the environment intact until the former Soviet Union decided to divert the rivers to grow ‘white gold’- cotton, rice and other vegetables. This was a major plan for them to become a lead exporter in cotton. Which eventually happened as Uzbekistan is one of the lead exporters of cotton to this very day. But cotton and rice being extremely thirsty plants required immense amounts of water and instead of the 2 rivers irrigating the desert it was used to irrigate the 7.6 million hectares of thirsty crops. Due to the diversion of the water the water level started to decrease as the river discharge started to drop. Subsequently as the years passed by the rivers brought lesser water to the sea. The sea was retreating from its original shores, leaving behind dry land covered by the crust of salt. The irrigation project was enormous and no attention was given to downstream requirements. The irrigation techniques were not efficient with open waterways leading to waste. Very little care was given to the need for proper drainage. On average there was a decline in water level during the 1960s of 0.21 m/year, in the 1970s of 0.6 m/year, and in the 1980s of 0.8 m/year. Now it has lost 80 % of its volume and uncovered 3.6 mil hectares of seabed .The surface level has contracted by half, the level significantly reduced by 19 m and in some areas the sea’s edge is more than 100 km from its former shore.
The Soviets were not surprised of the slow recline and eventual fading of the Aral Sea, as they had predicted this to happen. In 1964 , at the Hydroproject Institute Aleksandr Asarin stated that the lake was doomed, explaining “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea. Plans were taken to refill the Aral Sea after a while but the estimated costs were staggering, the authorities rejected the project in 1966.
Ecology ,environment and climate :
The future of the Aral Sea looked very grim. The surrounding environment and the marine ecology of the started to depreciate. The local climate, hydrology and natural habitat were also affected greatly due to the declining sea- level.
As the sea – level reclined, few areas started to get exposed. The deltas in the sea was lush and abundant with flora and fauna that provided flowing food supplies for the livestock , and reeds for the industry , an abundant breeding ground for its fish industry and sites for hunting. When the deltas started to dry up, deserts started to form thereby the number of wildlife, fish and livestock started to drop. Only 38 of the 173 living species that once habited the deltas survived. Just 30 years ago the sea was a major contributor to the fishing industries; in 1957 Muynak and Aral’sk were flourishing sea ports processing catches of 48,000 metric tons of fish. Now these fishing ports are situated many kilometers from the sea line and the fisheries are only open at very expensive costs with fish coming in from the Barents and the Caspian Seas. By the 1980’s almost 20 of the 24 native sea fish species disappeared.
The Soviet planners realized that if they were to expand the irrigation systems it would have contrary impacts on the sea, yet still nothing was done about it. They did not realize that it would have an effect on the surrounding natural climate. As the irrigation and the recline of the Aral Sea continued huge dust storms developed due to the sea drying up. As a result the agricultural productivity started to decline making it inhospitable for crops.
As the sea dried up more places in the sea started to get exposed and at the upper layer of the seabed the concentration of the toxic salts at the seabed combined with the lack of water and its nutrients made it difficult to provide a stable plant cover. Due to this dust storms started to brew and this increased in frequency and magnitude, as a result it carried an estimated of 43 million metric tons of salt per year over the enormous areas. These dust storms contained sodium chloride and sodium sulfate, which are toxic to plants.
As the salt levels in the regions started to rise in the water and soil contents it started having adverse effects on the agriculture in the region. Due to this excess of water was needed to meet the requirements of the plant but the problem was drainage was often poor together with the fact that it was more saline than the soil. This accumulates and raises the level of the groundwater table. As the water table rises into the root zone, the crops suffer from curtailed oxygen supplies. Thus the capillary action draws salts from the shallow groundwater tables upward toward the surface. As the water evaporates, high concentrations of salt are left on the surface, thereby ruining the agricultural potential of the land. Soviet research suggests that 60 percent of the irrigated soils in Uzbekistan, 80 percent in Turkmenistan, 35 percent in Tadzhikistan, 40 percent in Kirghizia, and between 60 and 70 percent in Kazakhstan suffered moderate to strong salinity problems in 1985.
The climate of the area was also affected, summers have become hotter, winters have become cooler and growing seasons have significantly become shorter. Precipitation has also decreased thereby increasing daytime temperatures. Average May temperatures were 3.0-3.2 degree Celsius higher, average October temperatures are 0.7 to 1.5 degrees higher and the growing season has declined by 10 days.
The Aral Sea, a large saltwater lake, is losing more than half of its surface area in 40 years. 3
Cows walk in the desert which used to be the seabed of the Aral Sea 4
Human Impacts :
Not only was the climate and animal life affected but even humans were affected from this disaster. Drinking water supplies were contaminated by pesticides. Many other diseases were released due to the desertification. Over the last 15 years diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, kidney disease, gallstone ailments, chronic gastritis have increased; infant mortality rates have gone up and the frequency of esophagus cancer and tuberculosis have reach epidemic levels. One survey found 80 percent of the women suffering from anemia and 70 percent of the children ill.
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Due to the rise in morbidity and reduced mortality in the people, hospital rates went up and poverty increased. Because of the vast no. of health problems in the population hospitals were lacking in essential medicines and health care. On account of the rising diseases, many of them were found in the blood and breast milks, as toxins found in pesticides and other toxic gases from the dust storms seeped into foods and contaminated food supplies.
As the waters are highly saline and contaminated, drinking water supplies have significantly decreased leading to liver and kidney diseases. The people have also been exposed to airborne toxins found in the dust storms causing respiratory diseases.
Due to the desertification the fishing industry and other local occupations such as reed growing, farming and other occupations disappeared causing unemployment rates to sky rocket, leading people to poverty. They were unable to grow agriculture due to the high salinity of the water. Shipping ports closed and the Aral Sea became a ship graveyard.
Aral Sea Restoration :
Finally attention was given to the Aral Sea in the 1980’s and 1990’s but the government realized that it would not be possible to restore the Sea to its original size back in 1960. But if it was left to continue to degrade a major catastrophe would occur. Looking into the problems 5 countries volunteered to try and restore or at least alleviate the cataclysm. Those 5 countries are: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan; the countries that neighbor the Aral Sea. They created the ASBP (Aral Sea Basin Program) in 1994 which was established to be conducted in four steps: To stabilize the environment of the Aral Sea Basin, To rehabilitate the disaster area around the sea, To improve the management of the international waters of the Aral Sea Basin, To build the capacity of institutions at the regional and national level to advance the program’s aims.
More water would have to pump into the Aral Sea if it had to be revived. The five countries referred to Interbasin Transfers (IBT); but it has not been put into place. They projected to divert the Caspian Sea into the Aral Sea but they anticipated that the same catastrophe might occur in the Caspian. This was just a hypothesis to be carried out, so ASBP was put into place. The first phase was to directly improve the land around the basin without touching the water system. This began from 1992 until 1997. This was because they found it difficult to implement the phase. Phase two began in 1998 till 2003. They wanted to increase awareness of the area to the public but they had little concern of the propaganda thus causing this plan to fail as well. Phase three was implemented in 1997 as the government constructed a new plan to back up the previous ones. The main objective of this plan is to improve the irrigation systems that are still there but aiming at the water management at a local view. The North Aral Sea is the largest project of this phase. The main idea is to build a dam across the Berg Strait ( a channel which connects the North and South Aral Sea). The dam is eight miles long and can facilitate twenty nine cubic kilometers of water to be stashed away in the North Aral Sea and allowing the excess water to overflow into the South Aral Sea.
Currently work is going on in the North Aral Sea to restore it. Irrigation in the Syr Darya have been improved and mended to increase the flow of water. In October 2003 the government began construction of a concrete dam, Dike Kokaral which separates the Aral Sea from the North and South. Construction finished in August 2005 and due to the dam water level in the North has increased also decreasing the salinity of the river. It is a minute growth but a valuable one over time. Few of the fish stocks were released into the river to bring back the past occupation and revive the fishing industry once again. This outstanding project caused small changes to the climate causing few rain clouds to brew up. The sea depth and sea surface has increased over the years. Seeing these achievements in the area the government has decided to construct a second dam to further the healing process of the Northern side.
The South of the Aral Sea only receives overflowed water from the North of the Aral Sea but apart from that no other measures have been taken. But plans have been pulled up to create a channel to connect the North and South and continue the replenishing projects in the South as well but political constraints are limiting its progress because of the oil exploration in the South of the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea was the fourth-largest Sea in the world at one time but today it does not exist in any last apart from the top ten ecological disasters caused by humans. Even though measures are taken to restore the Aral Sea back to its original form predictions are being made that because only the North Aral Sea is being refilled it may divide up into the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea as two completely separate basins. All these decades of problems and catastrophes were just over the greed of making more money, yes maybe it might increase the revenue of a nation but it should not be at the cost of another whole biome.
“There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”
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