London School of Liberal Arts
Not for profit but for beauty

The Aral Sea Disaster

A LibArts Review Essay


What weighs more – a pound of cotton or a pound of fish?

by Christine Olivier

Caucasus and Central Asia Political Map 2003

Positioned on the ancient Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia, Uzbekistan’s cities once flourished as trade and cultural centres. The landlocked Aral Sea, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the final destination of the legendary Amu Darya[1] and Syr Darya rivers. In ancient times the Amu Darya was so large that Alexander the Great’s army needed five days and nights to cross it and the river played a major role in limiting the expansion of the empires of both Alexander and Genghis Khan.

Over the last fifty years, the Aral Sea (once the size of Ireland and the fourth largest lake in the world) has lost over 90% of its water. Parts of the Amu Darya are little more than tiny streams and can be easily crossed by four-wheel drive. The people of the former seaside town, Moynaq, have paid the highest price. Since 1968, they watched how their sea, fish, ships, jobs, mild climate, beautiful coastline, health, friends and family, and their happiness, mysteriously disappeared.

The Aral Sea

In the 1950’s, Moynaq was the capital of the Aral fishermen and a famous holiday resort. In summer, several flights a day brought Soviet tourists to the beach. With one of the USSR’s major fish canning plants, employing almost 40,000 people, it was the centre of the fishing industry in Central Asia, processing around 20,000 million cans of seafood per year. Train cars full of fish left daily for markets in Moscow.

Today, with less than 3000 residents and no sea in sight, and no running water, one can’t help but notice that there is something strange about Moynaq. All over the town, displays of fish can be seen on sun-bleached murals and posters. Placards from a previous world still line the streets: ‘Water is the source of life’, ‘Labour leads to joy’, ‘Fish our wealth’, but there is not a single drop of water in sight. How did this happen?

Welcome to Moynaq
Moynaq placard
Moynaq placard

The Cotton Conspiracy

The territory of present-day Uzbekistan was conquered by Russia in the late 19th century. In 1919, Lenin decreed that the Soviet Union should become self-sufficient in cotton production. Central Asia, with its long hot seasons, mighty rivers and large labour force, was seen as the ideal part of the country for cotton production. However, it was under Stalin that the plan was put into action.

Stalin working on his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. The poster reads “And We Shall Conquer Drought”.

Not content with being self-sufficient in cotton production, he wanted “white gold” to become a major export. The plan was put into action with the forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture in the late 1920s and large scale building of irrigation canals in the 1930s.[2] In 1948 he announced his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.[3]

Stalin’s Great Plan wasn’t implemented in his lifetime, but under Khrushchev the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were diverted to irrigate the ever-expanding cotton fields in this arid region. Large dams were built across both rivers and irrigation from the Amu Darya was extended to Turkmenistan with the building of the Qaraqum Canal.[4] Stretching 1300 km into the desert, it is one of the largest irrigation canals in the world and the single most important factor contributing to the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the quiet catastrophe befalling Moynaq.

Aral Sea 1960
Aral Sea 1973
Aral Sea 1987
Aral Sea 1999
Aral Sea 2006
Aral Sea 2009
Between 1960 and 1990 the agricultural land area south of the Aral doubled and so did the use of pesticides, fertilizers and water consumption. The Amu Darya delta supported extensive irrigation-based agriculture for thousands of years. What was ‘new’ since the 1950’s, however, was the huge amount of water diverted from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. The fresh water from these two rivers held the Aral’s water and salt levels in perfect balance, but starved from the regular inflow, the sea, together with its varied plant and animal life, began its silent disappearance. Around 1968, the Aral experienced a severe drop in water level and its salt content started to increase. By 1987 it had divided into two sections, the ‘Small Northern Aral’ and the ‘Large Southern Aral’. By 2008 only two small lakes remained and the world’s youngest desert, the Aralkum, formed as a consequence.

The Soviet leaders changed the desert into a vast cotton plantation and the Aral Sea into a desert. In 1964, Uzbekistan produced 4 million tonnes of raw cotton. By 1985, with all available land in use, production increased to 5.5 million tonnes and they became one of the world leaders in raw cotton production. Although still the world’s third-largest cotton exporter, production has fallen substantially since independence, owing to deteriorating soil quality and poor infrastructure. The vast network of irrigation canals are not properly maintained and blocked drainage pipes push salt levels up. A recent United Nations report estimated that 46 percent of Uzbekistan’s irrigated lands have been damaged by salinity.

This year, the Uzbek government has come under increasing international criticism for the use of forced adult and child labour in its annual cotton harvest, but for political reasons, the US is in no hurry to threaten Uzbekistan with sanctions.

No surprises for the Soviet Government

The Soviet government was fully aware that they would lose the Aral Sea. During the planning of the irrigation network in the Aral Sea basin, it was predicted that the canals would reduce inflow to the Aral Sea and substantially reduce its size. It was seen as a worthwhile trade-off: a cubic meter of river water used for irrigation would bring far more value than the same cubic meter delivered to the Aral Sea. The economic gains from cotton far outweighed the economic gains from the fishing industry.

However, no one bothered to warn the residents of Moynaq. In 1968, to their big surprise, the Aral’s water started receding. First slowly, but since the 1980s quite rapidly. By 1970, the annual catch of more than 40,000 tonnes of fish dropped to 18,000. Over 50,000 people’s lives depended on this sea and canals were dug to reach the ever receding waterline, but by the 1990s the sea was already over 20 km away from the town. In the early 1980s, the fish disappeared due to the high water salinity and the commercial fishing industry collapsed. The airport, the rail-road yard, the shipyard and the muskrat breeding farm[5] were closed.

What appears to be snow on the seabed is really salt

Dust storm over the Aral Sea and Moynaq, 2007
The Aralkum Desert is a solid, glistening salt-marsh consisting of 45 000 km2 of dry, white salt and remnants of mineral deposits, washed away from irrigated fields. Well known for its “black blizzards” (the local word for the dust and salt storms) it is no more than a doomed museum in the open air, exhibiting the remnants of ships.

Dust storm over the Aral Sea and Moynaq, 2008
Today, the sea is over 50km from Moynaq. The lack of clean drinking water[6] and the prevailing dust and salt storms that carry a cloud of fertilizer and pesticides, including DDT, have resulted in devastatingly high levels of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses in and around Moynaq. Apart from life expectancies about 20 years less than the national average, residents suffer from anaemia (in 80% of pregnant women), cancer, high infant and maternal mortality rates, intestinal infections, gallstones, kidney stones, typhoid fever and hepatitis. Together with the gradual climate change[7] accelerated by the evaporation of the Aral Sea, it has created an apocalyptic scene in the region. Most of the fishermen went away to work on cotton plantations and some started breeding camels. Many died and others left to escape the escalating health problems.

Adding to the general misery caused by the decline of the Aral, Vozrozhdeniya Island, once isolated in the middle of the Aral Sea, is now accessible overland. For forty years, this island hosted the Soviet Union’s most important facility for developing and testing biological weapons – Aralsk-7. Since 2001, the island has been connected to Uzbekistan’s mainland, allowing people and animals easy access to and from this contaminated area.

The Aralkum
Salui, once the captain of this ship

‘Dark tourists’ never stay long

The only vague hope for Moynaq was tourism – to showcase their graveyard of ships. There is a certain kind of tourist that is attracted to apocalyptic scenes, presumably for the thrill of feeling part of a surreal sci-fi movie. There are even words for this, ‘dark tourism’ or ‘disaster tourism’. But ‘dark tourists’ never stay more than a few hours. Some tour operators cancelled their day trips to Moynaq when the abandoned ships, encrusted with salt and agricultural chemicals, started causing illnesses and the black blizzards got more dangerous.

“Save the Aral Sea” Stamps. Jointly issued by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1996.
In the late 1980s, thanks to Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ policy, the ecological catastrophe became publicly known and in 1990 the Royal Geographical Society unveiled evidence that the devastated region around the Aral Sea is the world’s worst ecological disaster. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the Aral Sea crisis was now in the hands of the five Central Asian nations. In 1993 they formed the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). They pledged to fund a rescue effort and issued a block of five stamps in a first attempt, but little further action was taken and the sea continued to shrink.

Moynaq’s residents might wait forever

Thanks to the ongoing efforts from two determined mayors, local villagers and a group of international journalists, Kazakhstan, the wealthier of the Central Asia nations, decided to correct the situation at least on its own side (the Small Aral). In 2005 the Kok-Aral dam, supported by the Kazakh government with financing from the World Bank, was completed and water from the Syr Darya is being trapped into the Small Aral again. Water levels have risen faster than expected, the lake’s salinity has decreased, fish stocks have increased and a new fish-processing plant is being built. Within 5 years, over 500 fishermen have returned to Aralsk and the local mayor’s endless efforts to bring his town back to life have paid off – “You know some men go to the bar after work” he says “to drink or chat up the girls. I just come and gaze at the sea”. In Aralsk, even though the town is still small and poor, there is reason to be hopeful.

The last fisherman in town

But Moynaq is still in decline. There is less money, few environmental controls and little enthusiasm for improving the lives of local people. In June 2010, an international Oil and Gas Consortium[8] announced that it had discovered a gas field in the dried-up Southern Aral seabed. Of course, for them an isolated, exposed seabed is ideal.

The few residents who have chosen to remain, still dream that the sea will return one day. They still sing songs about the Aral Sea, but the only fishermen in town are now on sign posts in the streets. Scientists and ecologists are certain that the Southern Aral will disappear completely by 2020, or even earlier.


On 13 July 2012, the UN in Uzbekistan launched a new initiative titled “Sustaining Livelihoods Affected by the Aral Sea Disaster”. Designed in close collaboration with the Uzbek Government and with $3.8 million allocated for implementation, it aims to improve the welfare of the local community of Moynaq and neighbouring areas by improving access to healthcare, clean water and gas. The programme also aims to introduce improved agricultural practices and to support entrepreneurial activities. We can only hope that this initiative bears some fruit.

aral sea
Sailors without a Sea” by photographer Mario Pereda.
See more of his photos taken in and around Moynaq


  1. In classical antiquity, the river was known as the Oxus. ‘Darya’ comes from the Old Persian word ‘drayah’, meaning sea or enormous river. [back]
  2. In 1939, over 160,000 labourers constructed the 270 km long Great Fergana Canal. Drawing water from the Syr Darya River, it was the Soviet Union’s first step to achieving cotton independence. [back]
  3. The Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was put forth by Joseph Stalin in October 1948, consisting of two major projects: a) planting a gigantic network (60,000km2) of shelterbelts (‘forest strips’) across the steppes of the southern Soviet Union; and b) building a network of irrigation canals which included changing the natural flow of rivers in the deserts of Central Asia. [back]
  4. The irrigation systems in Central Asia consist of open, earth-dug canals which lose a significant amount of water due to evaporation long before it reaches the cotton fields. [back]
  5. Moynaq’s muskrat breeding farm prepared up to 2 million muskrat skins every year. Living in the wetlands around the Aral, their numbers declined rapidly when the water started receding. [back]
  6. There is no running water in Moynaq. Drinking water in the region is often poisonous, due to increasing salinity, bacteriological contamination, and the presence of pesticides and heavy metals. [back]
  7. Over the past 60 years, summer temperatures have risen by 10 degrees Celsius and winter temperatures have decreased by 10 degrees Celsius. The growing season effectively changed from 200 to 170 days. [back]
  8. Comprising state-owned Uzbekneftefas, Russia’s Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas, Korean National Oil Consortium and China National Petroleum. [back]


  1. Alles, David. 2011. ‘The Aral Sea’. Western Washington University. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  2. ‘Aral Sea’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  3. Aral Sea Is “World’s Worst Disaster”. BBC, October 22, 1990. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  4. Calder, Joshua. 1995. ‘ARAL SEA’. The American University TED. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  5. ‘Cotton Campaign’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  6. ‘Environmental Justice Foundation EJF: Cotton in Uzbekistan’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  7. Fabian, Lorenzo. Vigano, Paola. ‘Extreme City. Climate Change and the Transformation of the Waterscape’. Issuu. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  8. Frederick, Kenneth. ‘The Disappearing Aral Sea’. Resources for the Future 102 (Winter 1991).
  9. Glantz, Michael, ed. 2008. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Hodge, Nathan. 2012. ‘U.S. Ends Ban on Aid to Uzbekistan’. Wall Street Journal, February 1. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  11. ‘Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan Take Differing Approaches On Aral Sea’. Global Issues. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  12. Kilner, James. 2012. ‘Uzbekistan Withdraws from Russia-lead Military Alliance – Telegraph’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  13. Lauener, Paul. ‘A Sea Returns to Life, a Sea Slowly Dies’. New Internationalist. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  14. Manaugh, Geoff. 2007. ‘BLDGBLOG: The Island of Forgotten Diseases’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  15. Metcalfe, Daniel. 2010. ‘Dreaming of the Sea, or a Holiday in Moynaq’. Open Democracy. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  16. Mickin, Philip. 1988. ‘Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  17. ‘Research of Renaissance Island in Aral Sea Continues’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  18. ‘Responsible Sourcing Network – Cotton’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  19. Tavernise, Sabrina. 2008. ‘Old Farming Habits Leave Uzbekistan a Legacy of Salt’. The New York Times, June 15, sec. International / Asia Pacific. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  20. ‘The Geography of Karakalpakstan’. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  21. ‘The Kazakh Miracle: Recovery of the North Aral Sea’. Environment News Service. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  22. ‘UN to Implement Program on Aral Sea Improvement’. Trend. Available at [Accessed 19 July 2012]
  23. ‘Uzbekistan: US Report Fails Child Labor Victims’. Human Rights Watch. June 20, 2012. Available at [Accessed 20 July 2012]
  24. Wiggs, Giles F. S., Sarah L. O’hara, Johannah Wegerdt, Joost Van Der Meer, Ian Small, and Richard Hubbard. 2003. ‘The Dynamics and Characteristics of Aeolian Dust in Dryland Central Asia: Possible Impacts on Human Exposure and Respiratory Health in the Aral Sea Basin’. The Geographical Journal 169 (2) (June 1): 142–157.
  25. Zonn, Igor S., M. Glantz, Aleksey N. Kosarev, and Andrey G. Kostianoy. 2009. The Aral Sea Encyclopedia. Springer.

Image Sources

[1] Martijn Munneke. Het Aralmeer, via flickr
[2] Missaliona. Moynaq Placard, via Wikimedia Commons
[3] Azerbaijan International Magazine
[4] Shrinkage of the Aral Sea, 1960–99, via Encyclopaedia Britannica
[5] Earth Observatory NASA
[6] Earth Observatory NASA
[7] Neil Banas. Coastline, via flickr
[8] Postal block “Save the Aral Sea”, via Uzbekiston Pochtasi
[9] Tore Johan Birkeland. The last fisherman of Moynaq, via TrekEarth

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