The satellite image of the Aral Sea recently released by NASA just about knocked my socks off.
It wasn’t that the sea was shrinking; that’s been true for decades. It was how fast it was disappearing.
Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has been losing water for half a century — ever since Soviet engineers began diverting the two rivers that sustain it, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in order to grow cotton in the desert.
When I visited the Aral Sea in the spring of 1995, it had already split into two – a small northern sea and a much larger southern sea. The larger sea had also begun to split into western and eastern lobes.
I stood on a lake bluff in the old port town of Muynak, Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan, and the sea was nowhere in sight – it was 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. A graveyard of ships sat rusting and rotting in the dried-up seabed.
By 2005, the lake had lost 80% of its water. Most of the fish – and 60,000 fishing jobs – had disappeared. Winds blowing across the exposed seabed picked up millions of tons of salt and toxic dust and deposited them on the surrounding villages and landscapes.
The 3 million people in the “disaster zone” of the sea suffered from high rates of cancers, respiratory ailments, anemia and other illnesses. Not surprisingly, thousands had fled.
In 2009, a news report crossed my desk that satellite imagery from the European Space Agency showed that the eastern lobe of the Aral Sea had lost an additional 80% of its water just in the previous three years.
And then this month, NASA released an image taken from its Terra satellite on August 19 that showed the shocker: the eastern lobe had completely dried up. Philip Micklin, one of the world’s preeminent experts on the Aral Sea and a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University, told NASA that this is likely the first time the eastern basin has dried up completely in modern history.
Click here to see a time series of the sea’s shrinkage from 2000 to 2014.
The small northern sea has been diked off in a desperate attempt to save a tiny portion of the vast lake, but the southern Aral remains subject to large river diversions and the impacts of drought.
The destruction of the Aral Sea – a freshwater ecosystem the size of Ireland – was no accident.
On a visit to the United States, Soviet Parliamentarian Alexei Yablokov told me back in June 1991 that he’d once had a map hanging on his office wall that depicted Central Asia without the Aral Sea.
Soviet central planners in Moscow had calculated that the rivers flowing into the sea – especially the Amu Darya — would be worth more if their flow was diverted to grow crops in the desert rather than to continue to sustain the sea.
So Soviet engineers built the Karakum Canal, the largest water supply canal in the world, and began diverting the river’s flow. Over time, inflow to the Aral dropped by 90%. Like a swimming pool sitting in the desert, the Aral Sea lost huge volumes of water to evaporation. With so little flow replenishing it, the sea relentlessly shrank.
No place on Earth better shows the connections between the health of an ecosystem and that of the people, communities, and economy that depend on that ecosystem.
The Missing Piece: A Better Way to Value Water
The unspoken tragedy is that the Aral Sea story didn’t have to go this way.
With a more holistic approach to valuing water, the health of the people, the communities, the economy and the lake could have all been protected.
Over the last century, societies the world over assigned value to water only when it was extracted from its place in nature and put to work on a farm, in a factory, or in a home. Little or no value was attributed to water’s role in its place in nature – for sustaining fisheries, habitats, health, recreational values, and a host of other goods and services.
So the big lesson of the Aral Sea story is the need to find the optimal balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it in place to do the work of nature.
Had sufficient flow remained in the two rivers to sustain the Aral Sea as a functioning ecosystem, the region could have developed a productive economy that included both higher-value agriculture along with the benefits brought by a healthy sea.
We can’t just chalk this “mistake” up to Soviet central planning, because in 1996, a year after I returned from the Aral Sea, I made my fist trip to the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
It was a different political context and a different ecosystem, but a similar outcome: with no water allocated to sustain the Delta, it had largely been surrendered as a sacrifice zone – an outcome the United States, Mexico and conservation groups are now attempting to partially reverse.
Without a new mindset and approach to how we value water, the Aral Sea is a harbinger of what’s to come in other parts of the world.
The silver lining is that by incorporating the value of water in nature in our decisions about how to use and manage water, we will greatly increase water’s value to society – and find ourselves healthier and better off for it.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.