`Dead lake'

The Aral Sea has shrunk to a fourth of its size. Neha Mungekar trav­els to Uzbek­istan and re­counts how it re­mains a liv­ing sam­ple of a mon­u­men­tal hu­man-made eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe

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The Aral Sea con­tin­ues to be ex­ploited even though it is prac­ti­cally dead

IN MOD­ERN times, the health of an econ­omy is deemed far more vi­tal than that of the ecol­ogy. Re-rout­ing rivers, re­align­ing wa­ter­bod­ies, fo­cus­ing on mono­cul­ture cul­ti­va­tion, cre­at­ing cities next to trans­port cor­ri­dors and then trans­port­ing wa­ter to places with scarce ground­wa­ter has be­come the norm across the world. Sud­den pros­per­ity may val­i­date this de­vel­op­ment path­way, but the ir­re­vo­ca­ble dam­age to na­ture is cat­a­strophic. Aral Sea is one such story.

In the 1960s, the Aral Sea re­gion used to sup­port a thriv­ing fish­ing in­dus­try. Even ear­lier, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins, which used to feed this in­land lake, pro­vided wa­ter to the oa­sis towns that gave birth to the his­toric Silk Route. Dur­ing the Soviet rule, Uzbek towns near the Aral Sea were forced to shift their liveli­hood to cot­ton mono­cul­ture farm­ing. Ill­con­ceived Soviet ir­ri­ga­tion schemes re­duced the wa­ter flow from the rivers needed to re­plen­ish the Aral Sea.

To­day, the lake—which was called a sea due its sheer size and salin­ity—has re­duced to a mere 25 per cent of its orig­i­nal size. From be­ing as big as the state of Pun­jab, it is now smaller than the size of Goa be­cause of the re-rout­ing of Amu Darya and Syr Darya to give im­pe­tus to cot­ton pro­duc­tion. Although the Aral Sea disas­ter—a hu­man­made en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe—was re­alised in the late 1990s, its con­se­quences are be­com­ing even more ev­i­dent to­day.

In the 1960s, the depth of the lake was 68 me­tres. To­day, it is less than 10 me­tres. A rel­a­tively shal­low wa­ter level spread across a large sur­face area has led to faster evapo-

ra­tion. This has caused over 90 per cent loss in the vol­ume of wa­ter in the last six decades. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, it now hosts trav­ellers who visit to wit­ness the apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape.

Lay­ered prob­lems

The Aral Sea is a ter­mi­nal lake with no out­lets. As it lies in a rain-shadow re­gion, the rate of evap­o­ra­tion far out­weighs the rate of pre­cip­i­ta­tion. Nukus, a town on the south of the Aral Sea, re­ceives an av­er­age an­nual rain­fall of just about 100 mm. The need to strike a bal­ance between the river feed, pre­cip­i­ta­tion, evap­o­ra­tion and seep­age has made it dif­fi­cult to en­sure its sur­vival. Any change in any of th­ese four fac­tors af­fects the quan­tity and qual­ity of wa­ter, rapidly. There­fore, the rea­son of on­go­ing disas­ter lies beyond the north­ern re­gion of Kaza­khstan and the Ustyurt Plateau re­gion that in­cludes the crit­i­cal mass of the Aral Sea.

The shrink­ing of the Aral Sea has al­ready changed the cli­mate in the re­gion to the point of no re­turn. With grad­ual des­ic­ca­tion over the years, the lake bed has got ex­posed. Dust plumes are of­ten seen ris­ing from the sed­i­ments of the lake bed. Th­ese dust storms have made re­gional win­ters colder and sum­mers hot­ter. They have not only wors­ened air qual­ity for the nearby res­i­dents, but have also af­fected crop yields due to heavy salt-laden par­ti­cles fall­ing on arable lands.

There has been an in­crease in the ab­strac­tion of ground­wa­ter through­out the basins of the two rivers. The wa­ter is pumped out at the up­stream of the Amu Darya River that feeds the Silk Route towns—Bukhara, Sa­markand and Tashkent in Uzbek­istan. The out­flow from th­ese towns does not bal­ance the in­flow. In­crease in evap­o­ra­tion, cou­pled with re­duced ground­wa­ter in­flow and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, has fur­ther led to salin­i­sa­tion and the foam­ing of wa­ter in the cen­tral part of the lake that comes un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of Uzbek­istan. What was once a huge lake is now an end­less desert called Aral Qum.

Barsa Kelmes, one of the lakes, is now cov­ered with a solid salt crust. The shore of the lake is cov­ered with car­casses of dead in­sects, re­veal­ing the dam­ag­ing im­pacts of

hy­per-salin­ity. Su­dochie Lake is now a marsh­land. Long grasses have taken over the shore giv­ing rise to marsh­land fauna. The fish­ing com­mu­nity, which used to de­pend on Sud-ochie Lake, has de­serted Urga town, which now re­sem­bles a dis­tant ruin.

Like the oceans, the Aral Sea basin has be­come a huge salt col­lec­tor. Most of the salt is ac­cu­mu­lated be­low the soil form­ing a sub­soil layer. Dur­ing ir­ri­ga­tion, the wa­ter dis­solves some of the salt and seeps into the sur­face. This se­condary salin­i­sa­tion makes it im­pos­si­ble for crops to sur­vive. The en­tire town of Nukus is now saline.

In a way, the ir­ri­gated farm­ing in­vited its own death. And to make the mat­ters worse, farm­ers try to re­duce the salin­ity by wa­ter­log­ging, which, in turn, brings more salt to the sur­face. As salin­ity per­me­ates down­stream, it spreads across the delta area, fur­ther­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Chang­ing con­tours

The south-west edge of the Aral Sea has eroded, form­ing large canyons along the Ustyurt Plateau. Th­ese canyons were formed by a process of long-time ero­sion. The Ustyurt Plateau, which over­looks the western edge of the Aral Sea, is a clay and stony desert with an av­er­age el­e­va­tion of 150 me­tres. In ge­o­log­i­cal terms, it is called “Sar­ma­tian lime­stones” with sep­a­rated edges lead­ing to steep slopes.

The apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes are now lit­tered with the scat­tered re­mains of the ships that could not move due to the rapidly re­ced­ing wa­ter lev­els. Muy­nak, the last des­ti­na­tion town near Nukus, houses the grave­yard of ships. There’s an in­ter­est­ing de­mo­graphic shift in the re­gion with the young and the work­ing pop­u­la­tion mov­ing to cities in search of bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment, leav­ing chil­dren and their grand­par­ents be­hind. The town sur­vives on the salaries earned by the younger gen­er­a­tions or by tourists who come to ob­serve the disas­ter.

Re­cently, Uzneftegaz­doby­cha, a pri­vate com­pany, de­signed an eas­ier and cheaper method to ex­plore hy­dro­car­bons be­low the for­mer seabed. The Uzbek gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple in the re­gion see this as an op­por­tu­nity to earn ad­di­tional rev­enue. But in­ten­sive de­vel­op­ment of oil and gas fields will fur­ther dry up the Aral Sea. EU To­day re­ports that the area ear­marked for prospect­ing and drilling are lo­cated in the nat­u­ral cav­erns that re­tain a part of the Aral Sea. The wa­ter in th­ese cav­erns needs to be drained for this pur­pose, thus, fur­ther­ing the disas­ter.

The Aral Sea catas­tro­phe ex­em­pli­fies the An­thro­pogenic era. This hu­man-made disas­ter is af­fect­ing the ecosys­tem for more than five decades now. Yet, the cur­rent de­vel­op­ment paradigm is con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the long-term reper­cus­sions and is choos­ing the op­tion of al­ter­ing the wa­ter­bod­ies to suit big­ger and prof­itable agen­das. The cur­rent state of the Aral Sea needs to be un­der­stood and its lessons be ap­plied when­ever we think of al­ter­ing the course of any wa­ter­body.

In 1993, Cen­tral Asian coun­tries— Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Ta­jik­istan, Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan—es­tab­lished the In­ter­na­tional Fund for Sav­ing the Aral Sea to re­ha­bil­i­tate the af­fected re­gion eco­log­i­cally. The mis­sion was to save the peo­ple liv­ing in Aral Sea basin by im­prov­ing their liv­ing con­di­tions. In 2005, the Kokaral Dam was built in a joint col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Kazakh gov­ern­ment and the World Bank to re­store the delta and the wet­land re­gion in Syr Darya River basin. The Uzbek gov­ern­ment is also damming the small wa­ter­bod­ies that re­main.

How­ever, th­ese spo­radic ef­forts are not enough to re­vive the basin span­ning seven na­tions. A cross-coun­try method needs to be put in place by own­ing col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity. Be­cause it may take many gen­er­a­tions to re­vive the lost lake back to its orig­i­nal glory.

The au­thor is an ur­ban de­signer and a se­nior as­so­ci­ate with the World Re­sources


The shrink­ing of the Aral Sea has changed the cli­mate in the re­gion. As the lake bed has got ex­posed, dust plumes have made win­ters colder and sum­mers hot­ter

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: NEHA MUNGEKAR (Above) In­creased evap­o­ra­tion, cou­pled with re­duced ground­wa­ter in­flow and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, has led to the foam­ing of wa­ter.

(Left) The sea near Nukus in western Uzbek­istan now houses a grave­yard of ships

NASA From be­ing as big as the state of Pun­jab, the Aral Sea is now smaller than Goa be­cause of the re-rout­ing of the river basins for cot­ton cul­ti­va­tion. Over 90 per cent of the vol­ume of wa­ter is lost 2016


There are ef­forts to milk the eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe. A com­pany is try­ing to de­sign an eas­ier method to ex­plore hy­dro­car­bons be­low the for­mer lake bed

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