At more than 67,000 sq km (26,000 sq miles), the Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world. But the Soviet Union’s uncompromising agricultural policies in the 1950s led to water from two rivers – the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – being diverted away from the sea to irrigate Central Asia’s desert steppes to boost cotton production. Water levels dropped and the once abundant populations of bream, carp and other freshwater fish dwindled with them.
Today, the sea is a 10th of its original size and has almost split in two. Mimicking the shape of a splintered number eight, the North Aral Sea – the top half of the body of water – lies in Kazakhstan. The South Aral Sea, which consist of a strip of water in the west and a dried-out basin in the east, sits in Uzbekistan.
In the 1990s, both bodies of water seemed headed for similar outcomes. But that changed when the World Bank stepped in with an $87m (£66m) rescue project in Kazakhstan.
This included constructing a 12km-long (7.5 mile) dyke across the narrow channel that connects the North Aral Sea to its neighbour to the south, with the aim of reducing the amount of water spilling out into the South Aral Sea. Improvements to existing channels of the Syr Darya river, which snakes northwards from Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan Mountains, also helped to boost the flow of water into the North Aral Sea.
…Raising the dyke walls by another four metres would help to keep an additional 15 billion cubic metres of water in the North Aral Sea, he adds. This would extend the area covered by the sea from 800sq km (300 sq miles) to 400sq km (150 sq miles).
….Plans to do this were put forward as part of a second phase of the World Bank project, but it has recently stalled. According to the World Bank the project is currently awaiting approval from the Kazakh government to move forward.
…Across the border in Uzbekistan, the story is very different. While the World Bank has worked on some projects to restore the existing lakes around the South Aral Sea, such as Lake Sudoche, it has had less success. The main obstacle appears to be the demand that Uzbeks have for it, as the Amu Darya river flows are used upstream for agricultural purposes and does not have enough water flow to fill up the South Aral Sea.
Greater reliance on cotton production for income has also hindered attempts to restore the South Aral Sea to its former glory. From 1930 to 1990, Uzbekistan provided more than two-thirds of the cotton produced in the Soviet Union. It ranked fifth out of 90 cotton-producing countries, and it was the second-largest exporter of cotton fibre to the US. Today, Uzbekistan is still the fifth-biggest cotton exporter in the world after the US, India, Brazil, and Australia.
…In 2015, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea completely dried up and the water never returned.