Aral Sea

About Aral Sea

The Aral Sea was an endorheic lake lying between Kazakhstan (Aktobe and Kyzylorda Regions) in the north and Uzbekistan (Karakalpakstan autonomous region) in the south which began shrinking in the 1960s and had largely dried up by the 2010s. The name roughly translates as “Sea of Islands”, referring to over 1,100 islands that had dotted its waters. In the Mongolic and Turkic languages aral means island, archipelago. The Aral Sea drainage basin encompasses Uzbekistan and parts of TajikistanTurkmenistanKyrgyzstanKazakhstanAfghanistan, and Iran.

Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By 1997, it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into four lakes: the North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea, and the smaller intermediate Barsakelmes Lake.

By 2009, the southeastern lake had disappeared and the southwestern lake had retreated to a thin strip at the western edge of the former southern sea. In subsequent years occasional water flows have led to the southeastern lake sometimes being replenished to a small degree. Satellite images by NASA in August 2014 revealed that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the Aral Sea had completely dried up. The eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert.

In an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea, the Dike Kokaral dam was completed in 2005. By 2008, the water level had risen 12 m (39 ft) above that of 2003. Salinity has dropped, and fish are again present in sufficient numbers for some fishing to be viable. The maximum depth of the North Aral Sea was 42 m (138 ft) (as of 2008).

The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has been devastated, bringing unemployment and economic hardship. The water from the diverted Syr Darya river is used to irrigate about two million hectares (5,000,000 acres) of farmland in the Ferghana Valley. The Aral Sea region is heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health  problems. UNESCO has added historical documents concerning the Aral Sea to its Memory of the World Register as a resource to study the environmental tragedy.


Native fish

Despite its former vast size, the Aral Sea had relatively low indigenous biodiversity. However, the Aral Sea basin had an exceptional array of endemic fish subspecies (as well as the three endemic sturgeon species), most of which still survive in the North Aral Sea, but some such as the sturgeons have been extirpated or even driven extinct by the lake’s shrinkage. Native fish species of the lake included ship sturgeon (Acipenser nudiventris), all three Pseudoscaphirhynchus sturgeon species, Aral trout (Salmo trutta aralensis), northern pike (Esox lucius), ide (Leuciscus idus oxianus), asp (Aspius aspius iblioides), common rudd (Scardinius erythropthalmus), Turkestan barbel (Luciobarbus capito conocephalus), Aral barbel (L. brachycephalus brachycephalus), common bream (Abramis brama orientalis), white-eyed bream (Ballerus sapa aralensis), Danube bleak (Chalcalburnus chalcoides aralensis), ziege (Pelecus cultratus), crucian carp (Carassius carassius gibelio), common carp (Cyprinus carpio aralensis), Wels catfish (Silurus glanis), Ukrainian stickleback (Pungitius platygaster aralensis), zander (Sander lucioperca), European perch (Perca fluviatilis), and Eurasian ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernuus). All these fish aside from the stickleback lived an anadramous or semi-anadromous lifestyle.

The salinity increase and drying of the lake extirpated the Aral trout, ruffe, Turkestan barbel and all sturgeon species, and dams now block their return and migration routes, with the Aral trout and Syr Darya sturgeon (Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi) possibly extinct due to their restricted range. All other native fish barring the stickleback (which persisted during the lake’s shrinkage and salinity increase) were also extirpated, but have returned to the North Aral Sea following its recovery from the 1990s onwards.

Introduced fish

Other salt-tolerant fish species were intentionally or inadvertently introduced during the 1960s when hydropower and irrigation projects reduced the flow of fresh water thereby increasing salinity. These include the Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras), big-scale sand smelt (Atherina boyeri caspia), black-striped pipefish (Syngnatus abaster caspius), Caucasian dwarf goby (Knipowitschia caucasica), monkey goby (Neogobius fluviatilis), round goby (N. melanostomus), Syrman goby (N. syrman), bighead goby (Ponticola kessleri), tubenose goby (Proterorchinus marmoratus), grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), silver carp (Hypophtalmichthys molitrix), bighead carp (H. nobilis), black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) and northern snakehead (Channa argus warpachowski).

The herring, sand smelt, and gobies were the first planktivorous fish in the lake, leading to a collapse of the lake’s zooplankton population. This in turn caused a collapse of the herring and sand smelt population from which neither species has recovered. All introduced species aside from the carp, snakehead, and (possibly) pipefish survived the lake’s shrinkage and salinity increase, and during this time the European flounder (Platichthys flesus) was introduced to revive fisheries. The extirpated species (aside from possibly the pipefish) returned to the North Aral Sea following its recovery. Herring, sand smelt, gobies and flounder persisted in the South Aral Sea until increasing salinity extirpated all but the gobies.


Prior to its shrinkage, the Aral Sea had about 250 species of native aquatic invertebrates, the majority (about 80%) being freshwater species; the rest were marine invertebrates with ties to the Ponto-Caspian and Mediterranean-Atlantic fauna. The dominant species (excluding protozoa) were rotifers, cladocerans, and copepods. Advanced crustaceans (Malacostraca) were represented by a single amphipod species, Dikerogammarus aralensis, an endemic of the Syr Darya basin. There were several native bivalves in the Aral Sea, including members of the genera Dreissena (including an endemic subspecies of zebra mussel, Dreissena polymorpha aralensis), Hypanis, and the lagoon cockle (Cerastoderma glaucum) (formerly considered distinct species Cerastoderma rhomboides and C. isthmica). Native gastropods included Theodoxus pallasi and a member of Caspiohydrobia.

Many of these invertebrates had their numbers drastically reduced due to the introduced fish species. Later, during an unsuccessful attempt to introduce mullet (Mugil sp.) to the Aral from the Caspian Sea, the rockpool shrimp (Palaemon elegans) was inadvertently introduced to the sea. The shrimp is thought to be responsible for the extirpation of the near-endemic amphipod Dikerogammarus aralensis, which now survives only in the Syr Darya basin. The copepod Calanipeda aquaedulcis was introduced to the Aral to replace the zooplankton species reduced by the herring population, and the North American mud crab Rhithropanopeus harrisii was inadvertently introduced during this attempt as well.

Later, as the lake’s salinity increased, many of the freshwater-adapted species disappeared, only leaving behind the marine and saline species. However, the zooplankton population in the North Aral Sea has recovered as salinity has decreased from the 1990s onwards, with extirpated crustacean and rotifer species returning naturally via the Syr Darya River, at the expense of the saltwater species. The cladoceran Moina mongolica, extirpated by the introduced fish species, has also returned. The zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha aralensis) has been reintroduced. In contrast, in the South Aral Sea only a few nematodes, rotifers, and parthenogenic brine shrimp (Artemia parthenogenetica) exist. The future prospects for aquatic invertebrates in all remaining Aral Sea fragments depend on their future changes in salinity.

The Syr Darya sturgeon (Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi) was a primitive species of fish possibly driven to extinction by the shrinkage of the Aral Sea.

The Ukrainian stickleback (Pungitius platygaster) was the only native species of the Aral Sea to survive its reduction and salinization.

The European flounder (Platichthys flesus) was a saltwater fish introduced to the Aral Sea.

The black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) was a freshwater fish introduced to the Aral Sea.

Zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), a former dominant member of the sea’s benthic fauna, and has since returned to the North Aral Sea.

Parthenogenic brine shrimp (Artemia parthenogenetica), the dominant crustacean of the South Aral Sea and its fragments.


Climate shifts have driven multiple phases of sea-level rise and fall. Inflow rates from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya are affected by glacial melt rates at the rivers’ headwaters as well as precipitation within the river basins and cold, dry climates restrict both processes. Artificial irrigation systems have impacted the Aral, beginning in ancient times and continuing to the present.

The Aral Sea was part of the western frontier of the Chinese Empire during the Tang dynasty.

The Russian expedition of Alexey Butakov performed the first observations of the Aral Sea in 1848. The first steamer arrived in the Aral Sea three years later. The Aral Sea fishing industry began with the renowned Russian dealers Lapshin, Ritkin, Krasilnikov, Makeev, which later formed major fishing unions.


Russian naval presence on the Aral Sea began in 1847 with the founding of Raimsk, soon renamed Fort Aralsk, near the mouth of the Syr Darya. As the Aral Sea basin is not connected to other bodies of water, the Imperial Russian Navy deployed its vessels by disassembling them in Orenburg on the Ural River and transporting them overland to be reassembled at Aralsk. The first two ships, assembled in 1847, were the two-masted schooners Nikolai and Mikhail. The former was a warship; the latter a merchant vessel to establish fisheries. They surveyed the northern part of the sea in 1848, the same year that a larger warship, the Constantine, was assembled. Commanded by Lt. Alexey Butakov (Алексей Бутаков), the Constantine completed the survey of the entire Aral Sea over the next two years. Exiled Ukrainian poet and painter Taras Shevchenko participated in the expedition and produced a number of sketches.

In 1851 two newly built steamers arrived from Sweden. The geological surveys had found no coal deposits in the area so the Military Governor-General of Orenburg Vasily Perovsky ordered an “as large as possible supply” of saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron, a desert shrub akin to the creosote bush) to be collected in Aralsk for the new steamers. Unfortunately, saxaul wood proved not to be a suitable fuel and in the later years the Aral Flotilla was provisioned, at substantial cost, by coal from the Donbas.

Irrigation canals

In the early 1960s, as part of the Soviet government plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export, the Amu Darya river in the south and the Syr Darya river in the east were diverted from feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert in an attempt to grow cotton, melons, rice and cereals. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Cotton production is still Uzbekistan’s main cash crop, accounting for 17% of its exports in 2006.

Large scale construction of irrigation canals began in the 1930s and was greatly increased in the 1960s. Many canals were poorly built, allowing leakage and evaporation. Between 30 and 75% of the water from the Qaraqum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, went to waste. It was estimated in 2012 that only 12% of Uzbekistan’s irrigation canal length was waterproofed. Only 28% of interfarm irrigation channels, and 21% of onfarm channels have anti-infiltration linings, which retain on average 15% more water than unlined channels. Only 77% of farm intakes have flow gauges.

By 1960, between 20 and 60 km3 (4.8 and 14.4 cu mi) of water each year was going to the land instead of the Aral Sea and the sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral’s level fell an average of 20 cm (7.9 in) per year. In the 1970s the rate nearly tripled to 50–60 cm (20–24 in) per annum, and in the 1980s to 80–90 cm (31–35 in) per annum. The amount of water taken for irrigation from the rivers doubled between 1960 and 2000. In the first half of the 20th century prior to the irrigation, the sea’s water level above sea level held steady at 53 m. By 2010 the large Aral was 27 m and the small Aral 43 m above sea level.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets, they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be nature’s error, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable. On the other hand, starting in the 1960s, a large-scale project was proposed to redirect part of the flow of the rivers of the Ob basin to Central Asia over a gigantic canal system. Refilling of the Aral Sea was considered one of the project’s main goals. However, due to its staggering costs and the negative public opinion in Russia proper, the federal authorities had abandoned the project by 1986.

From 1960 to 1998, the sea’s surface area shrank by 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world’s fourth-largest lake with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,000 sq mi) and a volume of 1,100 km3 (260 cu mi). By 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 km2 (11,076 sq mi) and eighth largest. Its salinity increased, by 1990 it was at 376 g/L. (By comparison, seawater is typically 35 g/L, and the Dead Sea between 300 and 350 g/L.)

In 1987, the lake split into two separate bodies of water, the North Aral Sea (the Lesser Sea, or Small Aral Sea) and the South Aral Sea (the Greater Sea, or Large Aral Sea). In June 1991, Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union. Craig Murray, UK ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002, attributes the shrinkage of the Aral Sea in the 1990s to president Islam Karimov’s cotton policy. The enormous irrigation system was massively wasteful, crop rotation was not used, and huge quantities of pesticides and fertilizer were applied. The runoff from the fields washed these chemicals into the shrinking sea, creating severe pollution and health problems. As demand for cotton increased the government applied more pesticides and fertilizer to the monoculture and depleted soil. Forced labor was used and profits siphoned off by the powerful and well-connected.

In 2003, the South Aral further divided into eastern and western basins. The waters in the deepest parts of the sea were saltier and not mixing with the top waters, so only the top of the sea was heated in the summer and it evaporated faster than had been predicted. A plan was announced to recover the North Aral Sea by building Dike Kokaral, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea.

In 2004, the sea’s surface area was 17,160 km2 (6,630 sq mi), 25% of its original size, and a nearly fivefold increase in salinity had killed most of its flora and fauna. Dike Kokaral was completed in 2005 and, as of 2006, some recovery of sea level had been recorded.

good to know

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated. In the 1980s commercial harvests were becoming unsustainable, and by 1987 commercial harvest became nonexistent. Due to the declining sea levels, salinity levels became too high for the 20 native fish species to survive. The only fish that could survive the high-salinity levels was flounder. Due to the declining sea levels, former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards.

Aral, originally the main fishing port, is now about 15 kilometres from the sea and has seen its population decline dramatically since the beginning of the crisis. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbour and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies 30–90 kilometres from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry dusty land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.

The South Aral Sea remains too saline to host any species other than halotolerant organisms. The South Aral has been incapable of supporting fish since the late 1990s, when the flounder were killed by rising salinity levels.

Also destroyed is the muskrat-trapping industry in the deltas of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which used to yield as many as 500,000 pelts a year.

Women and children are the most vulnerable populations in this environmental health crisis due to the highly polluted and salinated water used for drinking and the dried seabed. Toxic chemicals associated with pesticide use have been found in blood and breast milk of mothers; specifically organochlorides, polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs), DDT compounds, and TCDD. These toxins can be, and often are, passed on to the children of these mothers resulting in low birthweight children and children with abnormalities. The rate of infants being born with abnormalities is five times higher in this region than in European countries. The Aral Sea region has 26% of its children born at low birthweight, which is two standard deviations away from a national study population gathered by the WHO.

Exposures to toxic chemicals from the dry seabed and polluted water have caused other health issues in women and children. Renal tubular dysfunction has become a large health concern in children in the Aral Sea region as it is showing extremely high prevalence rates. Renal tubular dysfunction can also be related to growth and developmental stunting. This, in conjunction with the already high rate of low birth weight children and children born with abnormalities, poses severe negative health effects and outcomes on children. These issues are compounded by the lack of research of maternal and child health effects caused by the demise of the Aral Sea. For example, only 26 English-language peer-reviewed articles and four reports on children’s health were produced between 1994 and 2008. In addition, there is a lack of health infrastructure and resources in the Aral Sea region to combat the health issues that have arisen.

There is a lack of medication and equipment in many medical facilities, so health professionals do not have access to the necessary supplies to do their jobs in the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan regions. There is also meager development of a health information system that would allow for extensive research or surveillance of emerging health issues due to Aral sea issues. An absence of a primary care approach in the health systems of this region also hinders services and access that could prevent and treat issues stemming from the Aral Sea crisis, especially in women and children.

The impoverished are also particularly vulnerable to the environmental and health related effects of changes to the Aral Sea. These populations were most likely to reside downstream from the Basin and in former coastal communities. They were also among the first to be detrimentally affected, representing at least 4.4 million people in the region. Considered to have the worst health in this region, their plight was not helped when their fishery livelihoods vanished with the decreasing levels of water and loss of many aquatic species. Thus, those in poverty are entrenched in a vicious cycle.

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