The Aral Sea, originally the world's fourth-largest lake by area, is vanishing in the Soviet Union. Its level plummeted about 13 meters between 1960 and 1987, and its area shrank by 40%. The recession has resulted from decreased inflows, mostly due to agriculture water withdrawals. Without further inflows, the sea will be gone within 50 years.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea has significant environmental impacts on its surrounding land. The desertification of approximately 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of fertile crescent has led to the death of thousands of people who were dependent on the sea for employment.
The reduced inflow also causes problems for the local population by limiting the amount of water available for irrigation and for household use.
In addition to agriculture, there are two other important sources of income for the people living around the Aral Sea: fishing and tourism. But because there's too little water now, both these sources are being damaged. The remaining fish are moving away from the shoreline where most of them were once harvested, and fewer tourists are visiting the region because of the poor quality of life there.
The Soviet government began draining the Aral Sea in order to create more farmland. They built large canals that diverted water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers into the Aral Sea to increase its size. This project was called "Saucerization".
The Aral Sea's Desiccation: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union The Aral Sea, originally the world's fourth-largest lake by area, is vanishing in the Soviet Union. Between 1960 and 1987, its level sank about 13 meters, and its area reduced by 40%. Its volume has also decreased by more than 90%. About half of the original sea remains today, and it is now only one-third as large as it was. The remaining two-thirds are occupied by desert land that once teemed with life but is now just another dry lake bed.
The crisis began in 1970 when the Soviet government decided to divert the waters of the Syr Darya and other rivers into the Aral Sea to promote agriculture in central Asia. At first, this program was a huge success, so much water was diverted that crop yields increased by 15% in Kazakhstan and 7% in Uzbekistan. But after some time, it became clear that this use of the water was not sustainable; the amount of runoff increased faster than the capacity of the reservoirs to hold it. So beginning in 1975, the authorities began to release some of the water back into the rivers. By 1980, the levels of the sea had recovered somewhat from their low point in 1970, but many scientists believe that it will be soon disappear forever.
The Aral Sea, formerly the world's fourth biggest lake with an extent of 68,000 km2 (26,300 sq mi), began dwindling in the 1960s when the rivers that supplied it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By 1990 its area had decreased by more than half. Since then, efforts have been made to restore the sea but there are still large parts of it that are too damaged for use.
The diversion of the three major rivers that formed the boundary of Kazakhstan - the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya, and the Yenikayir Creek - had severe consequences for the local population. The new dams created on the rivers caused serious problems because they did not have enough power generation capacity. This led to frequent droughts and floods which destroyed much of the agricultural land around the reservoirs.
In addition, the removal of these rivers as barriers to trade has allowed saltwater from the ocean to contaminate underground water sources that people depend on for drinking. Water pollution also comes from industry and domestic use of detergents and pesticides. The declining quality of the remaining water is another problem because it is no longer suitable for fishing.
Finally, the loss of such a big body of water has important implications for the environment generally. When rivers disappear they take their soil and sediment along with them which alters the coastline and causes land degradation.
Western experts confirmed the virtual disappearance of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia in October 1990, once the world's fourth biggest inland sea. The loss of sea water was caused by the Soviet authorities' 60-year-long intensive agriculture and pollution. Before 1960, more than 30 large rivers flowed into the sea; now there are only three or four.
The Soviet government created the Aral Sea to grow cotton but ended up destroying one of the largest bodies of saltwater in existence. The secret police called "the KGB" decided that if people knew how much water they were consuming, they might think twice before going about their daily business. Thus was born the great agricultural experiment that became known as "Kazakhstan: a country too far away for anyone to notice it wasn't part of Russia."
In addition to being a major source of irrigation, the Aral Sea also provided commercial fishing and industry with a constant supply of fresh water. When the sea disappeared, so did most of the livelihoods built around it.
The Soviets justified the construction of the sea by claiming that they were helping farmers who had been given land along the banks of the rivers. But since most of this land was used for growing food rather than livestock, this only served to further drain the already depleted river systems.