The Aral Sea is (or rather was) a huge saltwater lake with an area of 68,000 km² located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth-largest lake in the world in the early 1960s. However, during the following decades, its volume was drastically reduced until it became a small body of water ten times smaller than it was previously. Today the lake has been divided into two smaller lakes, the Aral Sea in the north and the Aral Sea in the south, which together barely reach 6,800 km² surface. This was the result of a Soviet Union project, executed in 1965, to divert the waters of the two main rivers that fed the Aral Sea basin, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, in order to use this water resource to boost large-scale agricultural production of cotton plantations. Over time the region surrounding this sea began to experience a boom of prosperity thanks to the economic benefits obtained from the export of this product.
For centuries the Aral Sea and its vast deltas supported the settlements parallel to the Silk Road, which connected China with Europe. When the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was integrated into the nascent Soviet empire in the early 1920s, Stalin decided to transform his Central Asian republics into gigantic cotton plantations. But the arid climate of this area was in no way conducive to the cultivation of such a water-consuming species, so the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious engineering works in world history: digging thousands of kilometers of water canals. Irrigation to bring water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya to the surrounding desert.
When the Kara Kum Canal, the largest canal in Central Asia, was built, more than two-thirds of the water was wasted. The construction of this canal began in 1954 in order to use the water from the Amu-Daria (Benito, 2011). Likewise, during the 1960s a series of minor diversions were built to irrigate the cotton plantations mainly with water from the Syr-Daria and the Amu-Daria, which progressively decreased the contribution that these water bodies made to the endorheic lake. Excessive water consumption was also brought about by the low efficiency of irrigation, with uncovered canals, poor drainage systems and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
The first and most obvious impact was the progressive drying out of the lake, which was the trigger for the abrupt increase in the salinity of its waters. Before the execution of the Soviet program, the sea contained an average of 10 grams of salt for each liter; in recent times the salinity already exceeds 110 grams per liter. This caused the fish to gradually disappear, as it is impossible to resist such levels of salinity. Another of the most visible alterations was the sporadic increase of sand storms in that area of Asia. What was once covered by water became a desert.
However, the results of this project were satisfactory, at least initially. It went from cultivating an area of around four million hectares of cotton in 1960 to seven million twenty years later, while the population of the area went from 14 to about 25 million inhabitants, largely due to the economic prosperity experienced. In general terms, the cultivation of cotton was highly favored because it corresponded to an increasing demand in the consumer goods industry of that time and the prices of this raw material were quite high during those years. Areas around the Aral Sea benefited from the money boom experienced. Even today, many years after the fall of the USSR, Uzbekistan, the main constituent country that benefited from the increased cultivation of cotton and other plants, continues to be a global power in the production of this good, representing an important part of its gross domestic product. Other countries that benefited from this, but to a lesser extent, were Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. However, the profitability of this crop has been declining due to the ineffective irrigation network, the low agricultural yield due to the salinization of the land, the constant advances in agricultural production, and the high production costs in the area.
Over time the land has been losing its fertility due to the environmental effects suffered from the disaster, and as well as that, the previously prosperous fishing industry has practically disappeared in its entirety due to the extinction of the fish that inhabited the sea. This represents the loss of a resource that can no longer be exploited to generate income for the inhabitants of this area of Central Asia.
Although at that time the Soviets justified this disaster in favor of the economy, experts consider that the environmental and social disaster it unleashed was much greater in dimensional and temporal terms, while the economic boom was predominantly temporary.
Nowadays it is evident that the prosperity caused largely due to the cotton cultivation boom, was fading and being overshadowed by social and environmental impacts that would end up having a more negative and lasting consequence than the economic contribution generated from starting the exploitation of the Aral. The health problems and the change in the terrain and climate of the area is something that will be very difficult to reverse, and it is impossible to do something about it directly, so its effects will continue to wreak havoc on the areas near the Aral Sea for a long time.