June 30, 2022

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The inland sea is almost dry: a catastrophe is looming over the Aral Sea

The inland sea is almost dry
A catastrophe is taking place in the Aral Sea

What was once a large inland sea has almost disappeared in a generation: the Aral Sea is considered to be the largest ecological disaster on Earth. Researchers are fighting for the last remnants of water. But whether the help will be adequate remains questionable.

Rusty ships lie on desert sand under a cloudy sea in the former port city of Mujnak. The water is gone for decades. In the vast Aral Sea that once gave life to Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, only surviving billboards documenting its disappearance remain.

Since 1960, 90 percent of the lake has disappeared.

(Image: Image Alliance / dpa)

The saltwater lake, known as the Inland Sea, has been dry for more than 60 years. It has long been disintegrated into separate parts. The northern part of the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan is stabilized by the local government. Even the fish live there again. However, in the western part of Uzbekistan, a barren landscape opens up due to erosion and rock erosion.

The United Nations views the area as a “symbol of the destruction of the planet by man.” Studies show that in the western part alone, 500 meters of water recedes annually. About 90 percent of the lake that appeared in 1960 is now extinct. According to the International Monetary Fund for the protection of the Aral Sea, it continues to dry up. “Five to seven more years – and the process will be irreversible,” says Vadim Sokolov, head of the fund in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

Danger to people and nature

In addition to the large Karagam and Kaisilkam deserts in the area, the new Aralgam has now been added to the arid bed. “The danger of this new desert is that large amounts of salt and very fine dust are thrown into the atmosphere from there,” Sokolov explains. The hydraulic engineer complains that health problems are noticeable for people with kidney and liver diseases, diseases of the cardiovascular system, cancer and tuberculosis.

In addition, there is massive species extinction in plants and animals, the expert says. With 270 grams of minerals per liter of water, the western part of the Aral Sea is salty enough for fish to survive. “In 1960 there were 30 species of fish, 20 of which were usable,” says Sokolov. Until the 1960s 40,000 tons of fish were caught each year. The lake is high in salt as the water level is low. First the fish died, and then tens of thousands of people lost their jobs – in fishing, agriculture and animal husbandry, because eventually the soil became infertile.

Sokolov is ready for a long answer to the question about the disappearance of water. “The causes of this ecological tragedy are that humans have lost the responsibility of morality, conscience and nature. Agriculture and industrialization have brought death.” Despite precautions, water was diverted from two large rivers, the Amu Darya and the Sir Darya, which feed the lake, for example for agricultural purposes, Sokolov says.

Only ten percent is left

The lake once covered an area of ​​about 69,000 square kilometers — almost the size of Bavaria. At approximately 1080 cubic kilometers (km 3) the inland sea was once a climate-regulating function. Today only ten percent is left. To maintain this level, seven to eleven cubic kilometers of water are needed per year, says Sokolov. “We only have two cubic kilometers, so not even a third.” One km3 is 1,000 billion liters of water.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev considers bringing the region back to life as one of his most important political goals. The country wants to use its vast areas for solar and wind power systems, for example, he says. The share of renewable energy should increase to 25 percent by 2030. Drinking water wells are being dug and desalination plants are being set up to save the last places of the Aral Sea. Cotton production, which required water, was also reduced. There are also considerations to improve tourism in the Dead Sea model in Israel.

Lots of actions, but no help

Sokolov, head of the Fund for the Recovery of the Aral Sea, sees a number of beautiful projects on paper, but finds a problem with not having the money for them. “Money comes in a tablespoon,” says Sokolov, who receives about two million US dollars (7 1.77 million) a year in his fund. Only $ 400 million is needed to build the necessary infrastructure so that the current situation can be maintained. There are dozens of companies and countless programs and assistance programs, Sokolov says. But there is a lack of coordination. There are a lot of actions, but no real help.

Sokolov does not want to give up, but sees the small chance that many will stop the disappearance of the already abandoned lake. “We ‘ve lost decades doing nothing.” Rainfall is low. Moreover, the temperature in the desert continues to rise. Thus the water evaporates. The Aral Sea shows that only one generation is enough to bring one of the most beautiful and largest inland waters of the earth to the brink of extinction.

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