Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life

Years ago, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake with an area of some 26,000 square miles. But in the 1950s, it became the victim of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policies. Water from its two river sources — the Amu Darya and Syr Darya — was intentionally diverted for cotton cultivation. The Aral Sea began to disappear and nearly completely vanished. But things have changed for good. From a report: This rapid collapse over less than three decades — which environmental scientists say is one of the planet’s worst ecological disasters — is marked today by the sea’s reduced size. Its total area of water, straddling Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is now a tenth of its original size. What’s left has broken into two distinct bodies: the North and South Aral Seas. In Uzbekistan, the entire eastern basin of the South Aral Sea is completely desiccated, leaving merely a single strip of water in the west. But Kazakhstan’s North Aral Sea has seen a happier outcome, thanks to a nearly $86 million project financed in large part by the World Bank. Along with repairs to existing dikes around the basin to prevent spillage, an eight-mile dam was constructed just south of the Syr Darya River. Completed in the summer of 2005, this dam, named Kokaral, surpassed all expectations. It led to an 11-foot increase in water levels after just seven months — a goal that scientists initially expected would take three years. This turnaround in the North Aral Sea’s fate has meant that the fish stocks have returned to its waters, injecting new life into the local communities. Just as government policies had doomed the Aral Sea, careful planning and research helped revive at least part of it.

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