Aral Sea Catastrophe

A Case Study of International Pollution Issues

Author: Chris Robertson | December 2014


The Aral Sea was once one of the largest terminal lakes located in Central Asia. Its most recent desiccation began in the 1960s due to the expansion of irrigation the caused the draining of its two tributary rivers. The lake level has fallen 23m, area has decreased 74%, volume reduced 90%, and salinity increased from 10 to more than 100g/l, all of which have caused adverse ecological changes including the decimation of aquatic species, initiation of dust/salt storms, degradation of deltaic biomes, climate change around its former shoreline, and severe health and economic impacts for local populations. It is vital to repair and preserve what remains of the deltas and two tributary rivers, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, not only for their ecological and economic value but also for the health and well being of the populations in its vicinity. Restoration to portions of lake has seen dramatic improvements and may provide a framework for minimizing trans boundary pollution issues.

Key Words: Amu Darya; Syr Darya; Aral Sea; Central Asia; irrigation; salinity; Karakalpakstan; pesticides; toxic dust; restoration


The Aral Sea, an oasis in ancient times, lies between the Karakum and Kyzlkum deserts and is fed by water from high glaciers that flow into the two rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which enter the sea from the north and south, respectively. Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, and Turkmenistan border the Aral Sea and in the south is the Karakalpakstan Republic whose people (pop. ~1.5 million) have been hit the hardest by the ecological devastation. The shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is considered one the most dramatic examples of a natural area destroyed by human activities. Its geography makes it an excellent study in issues of pollution without borders (Whish-Wilson, p. 29).

Image Copyright: 2009 Ohio State University
Image Copyright: 2009 Ohio State University

For almost three decades the utilization of water for irrigation of the cotton monoculture and the pervasive use of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants has brought, not only ecological, economic and social insecurity to the resident population, but also has created a critical situation for human health. Massive irrigation projects starting in the 1950’s were enormous in scale with little attention given to the requirements downstream. At one time, almost half the flow of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers reached the Aral Sea, by the 1980s, during dry or average years, no river water reached the sea at all (Whish-Wilson, p.29)

The tragedy of the Aral Sea only began with its desiccation. The overuse of pesticides for greater agricultural yield combined with the increased salinity resulting from the drying of the sea bed have led to serious human health and environmental issues around the region as well as intense toxic dust storms, the effects of which have been documented thousands of miles away. This study relates evidence of the economic and health issues in the region of Karakalpakstan attributed to the desiccation of the Aral Sea and the overuse of pesticides related to agricultural productivity as well as the resultant toxic dust storms and their impacts to the region and beyond. In addition, restoration efforts will be discussed as a possible method of addressing trans boundary pollution issues in the future.


The Aral (Kazak word for island) Sea held over 1100 islands with countless lagoons and shallow straits. The vast river deltas played a vital role in fish breeding and a flourishing fishing industry exploited over twenty commercially valuable species. A busy shipping trade connected the northern port of Aralsk to the river ports of the Amu Darya, some as far distant as Tajikstan (Whish-Wilson, p. 29).

The sea is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. The Aral Sea Basin includes Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and parts of Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, and Turkmenistan. Around the southern edge of the Aral Sea is the Karakalpakstan Republic, an autonomous republic incorporated into Uzbekistan. The people of Karakalpakstan are culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Uzbekistan and have borne much of the brunt of the ecological disaster (Whish-Wilson, 2002).

Soon after the creation of the Soviet Union, its leaders made plans to increase the production of cotton (often referred to as white gold) in Central Asia by expanding irrigation. Stalin’s five-year plans demanded that the Soviet Union become self sufficient in cotton and that increasing quotas and targets as a means to reach their goal (Whish-Wilson, p. 29).

This led to massive irrigation projects in the Aral Sea Basin commencing in the 1950s, accompanied by large-scale monocropping of cotton and reclamation of land from other agricultural pursuits. Kruschev continued the demand for increased cotton production and added the goal of Soviet self-sufficiency in rice, further ramping up the demand for irrigation water. The scale of the irrigation projects was enormous and little heed was paid to downstream requirements. In addition, the techniques used were inefficient with open waterways causing much waste and little regard was given to the need for proper drainage. The largest of the canals, the Karakam Canal, now diverts about 23-30% of the Amu Darya’s total flow, about 15-20 km3, to Turkmenistan (Whish-Wilson, p. 29).

Image Credot:
Image Credot:

The drying of the Aral Sea first became visible in the 1960s, and by the 1980s, during dry or average years, no river water reached the sea at all. There was an average decline in water level during the 1960s of 0.21 meters/year, in the 1970s of 0.6 meters/year, and in the 1980s of 0.8 meters/year. As of the year 2000, its volume decreased by 80% and 3.6 million hectares of seabed were exposed. Its surface level has shrunk by half, the level fallen by 19 meters and in some sites the sea’s edge is over 100 km from its former shore (Whish-Wilson, p. 29).

To increase cotton yields, large quantities of pesticides were used including the organochlorines dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethans (DDTs), hexachloro-cyclohexane compounds (HCH, Lindane), and Toxaphene (Whish-Wilson, p. 30).

While DDT was created in the 19th century, Dr. Paul Muller discovered its effectiveness against insects in 1939.   It was first used as a pesticide during World War II and then applied to common agricultural pests after the war (Duke). The health impacts have become more and more defined over the years and studies have shown harm even at low levels of exposure. Health effects range from breast and other cancers, male infertility, miscarriages and low birth weight, development delay, and nervous system and liver damage (PANNA). DDT was banned in the 1970s there is evidence that its use persisted in the Aral Sea Basin (Whish-Wilson, p. 30).

Toxaphene is a pesticide that is currently banned for all uses in the United States. Breathing, eating, or drinking high levels of toxaphene could damage the nervous system, the liver, and kidneys, and even cause death. Toxaphene is a mixture of hundreds of different chlorinated compounds. It was one of the most heavily used pesticides in the United States until 1982, when it was canceled for most uses. All registered uses were banned by 1990. Toxaphene was used primarily in the southern United States to control insect pests on cotton and other crops (ATSDR). It is unknown if it is still used in Central Asia, but it has been largely replaced by Lindane.

Hexachloro-cyclohexane, gamma-, also known as HCH gamma- or lindane, is a white solid that turns into a vapor when released into the air. Once released, it looks colorless but has a musty odor. Workers exposed to HCH gamma- while making pesticides showed signs of lung irritation, heart disorders, blood disorders, headache, convulsions, and changes in sex hormones. Humans and animals exposed to large amounts of HCH gamma- died (EPA).

As excessive irrigation practices continued and water levels decreased salinity of soils and water increased. To improve crop yields, more water, fertilizer, and pesticides were applied. The exposed former seabed consists of lifeless, salt encrusted sands contaminated by pesticides. Large dust storms, which can occur ten times annually, scour the seabed and transport tens of millions of tons of dust per year to be dumped on the surrounding land and its inhabitants. (Whish-Wilson, 2002)

Because of the prevailing northerly winds, Karakalpakstan is particularly affected. One study in Turkmenistan, to the south of Karakalpakstan, showed high rates of particulate matter deposition, with an average of 23% diameter less than 10 µm (PM 10). Furthermore, this dust was highly contaminated with phosalone, an organophosphate pesticide that has been extensively used in the area (Whish-Wilson, p. 30).

Increased water salinity and pollutants have killed most of the Aral Sea fish, including all the native species. Commercial fishing catches fell from 43,430 metric tons in 1960 to 17,460 metric tons in 1970 to non-existent in 1980. Salinization has damaged over 6 million hectares of land. Effects include decreased vegetation for forage that has led to a decrease in the numbers of domestic animal numbers that can be supported. The drying up of the Aral Sea has impacted the local climate. Previously, it played a moderating role but its loss is leading to shorter, drier summers, longer, colder winters, and decreased precipitation. Reduced growing seasons are also contributing to decreased agricultural productivity (Whish-Wilson, p. 30).

Water Pollution

In addition to the desire for increased agricultural production, attention should also be given to the large quantity of pesticides and fertilizers that drained into the sea during the cotton boom, which have bound to the salts of the seabed. As the water supply to the Aral decreased, the demand for cotton increased and, in response, more pesticides and fertilizers were poured onto the land. Land in most of the surrounding areas, regardless of the crop, was saturated with dangerous levels of chemicals needed to grow cotton (Columbia, 2008)

The runoff into the sea overwhelmed the body of water with little supply of fresh water practically eliminating the possibility of survival for many fish species as well as polluting the expanding bank with salt. Even before the 60s the Aral’s biodiversity was considered low. It supported 24 species of fish, over 200 species of free-living macro invertebrates, and 180 land animal species. Since the lowering of the water level with its increase in salinity and toxicity, none of the fish species survived. In addition, the receding shores have also left the once water locked breeding grounds of many of the species vulnerable to land predators. Furthermore, the introduction of new species of fish to preserve the regions lucrative fishing industry proved to be brutal competitors for the already vulnerable native species (Columbia, 2008).

The salinity of water is determined by the mass of salts dissolved in the water and the water volume. As sea level fell from water loss, the inflow of salts to the sea exceeded the salt discharge thus increasing its salinity. In the first decade of the crisis, the salinity rose by 14%. The result was the decrease in commercial catches from 43,430 tons in 1960 to zero in 1980. From 1960-2004, surface salinity increased from 10ppt in 1960 to 92ppt in 2004. The steep rise in salinity coupled with decreasing sea level is the most damaging to the landscape. (Columbia, 2008) Experts believe the ecological disaster has displaced more than 100,000 people and affected the health of more than 5 million people throughout the region. There has been a dramatic spike in anemia, brucellosis, bronchial asthma, typhoid-at approximately eight times the national average, and in tuberculosis. Today, the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country and acute respiratory diseases account for nearly half of all child deaths in the area. Such illnesses as ischemic heart disease, respiratory, kidney illnesses and illnesses of the nervous system will keep increasing. (Columbia, 2008)

Access to water determines the value productivity and measure of land in Central Asia and water pollution is a main environmental problem in this area (Peachy, 2004). As the findings of local scientists have shown, the quality of water from the river and drinking water deteriorated since the onset of the crisis—the amount of minerals increased in the Amu-Darya within Karakalpakstan. Organic and inorganic substances such as nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, and phenols are discharged into the river. About 150,000 tons of toxic chemicals have contaminated the water since the 90s and continue to pollute soil and water supplies (Ataniyazova, p. 2).

According to the local scientists, water quality started to change in the 1970s in parallel with environmental degradation in Karakalpakstan. The change in water quality in the Aral Sea basin reduced the number of fish in the river and in the sea, and destroyed most of the fauna. International experts confirm that most water sources in Karakalpakstan are polluted, and that the pollution is mainly caused by the agro-industry and mining industries (Ataniyazova, p. 2).

Most drinking water sources do not comply with water standards in Karakalpkastan. The groundwater table in Karakalpakstan is contaminated with a high level of salts and other minerals. The groundwater quality, as measured in total dissolved salts (TDS), ranges from 0.4 grams to 4-6 grams per liter (g/l). World Health Organization’s international standard for water mineral content for human consumption of 1.5 g/l TDS as related to palatability. The situation is especially dramatic in northern Karakalpakstan, where most schools and hospitals, including the maternity hospital, do not provide safe drinking water. For several decades the population in Karakalpakstan has been using highly mineralized and polluted drinking water. The health of the people continues to be at high risk because of this chronic exposure to the high level of minerals and multiple toxins in the water for drinking (Ataniyazova, 2003).

Bacterial contamination of drinking water is pervasive and has led to high rates of typhoid, paratyphoid, viral hepatitis, and dysentery. Liver and kidney ailments are widespread the latter of which may be attributed to the excessively high salt content of much of the drinking water. (Micklin, 2007)

Toxic Dust

Strong winds blow sand, salt, and dust from the dried bottom of the Aral Sea, large portions of which are a barren desert, onto surrounding lands. Since the mid-1970s, satellite images have revealed major salt/dust plumes extending as far as 500 km downwind that drop dust and salt over a considerable area adjacent to the sea in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and to a lesser degree Turkmenistan. Although dust/salt storms affect the entire zone surrounding the Aral, most of the major storms occur with north and northeast winds, which most seriously impact the Ust-Urt Plateau to the sea’s west and the Amu Darya delta at the south end of the water body. The latter is the most densely settled as well as economically and ecologically important region around the sea (Micklin, 2007).

For years now, people living around the Aral Sea have been suffering from the toxic cocktail of pesticides and salts that blow off the old seabed. And worryingly, it was in the areas furthest away that they found the highest concentrations of dust. Already it has been suggested that the Aral’s toxic dust has been carried as far as the Himalayas and Belarus. There is also concerns that the high salt content is contributing to the melting of glaciers high in the Pamir Mountains, where Central Asia meets Afghanistan and from where the rivers that fed the sea and from where he rivers that feed its flow (Hidalgo, 2000).

Salts in dry and aerosol forms, the most harmful of which include sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate, settle on natural vegetation and crops, particularly in the Amu Darya delta. In some cases, plants are killed outright, but more commonly, their growth and that of crop yields is substantially reduced. The salt and dust have also negatively impacted both wild and domestic animals by both directly harming them and reducing their food supply. Local health experts also consider air borne pollutants a factor contributing to the high incidents of respiratory illness and impairments, eye problems, and throat and esophageal cancer in the near-Aral region. Recently, British-led field work indicate the salt and dust blowing from the dried bottom of the sea and from irrigated farmland adjacent to it is laced with pesticides and heavy metal only serving to enhance the negative impacts on humans and other animals. (Micklin, 2007) Furthermore, the pollution affects regions thousands of miles away in the glaciers of Greenland and the forests of Norway and traces of pesticides and salt from the Aral region have been found in the blood of penguins in Antartica. (Ceylon, 2008)

Image Credit: NASA GSCF
Image Credit: NASA GSCF

In addition, Vozrozhedeniye (Renaissance) Island, centrally located in the Aral Sea, housed a secret facility used by the former Soviet Union to test biological weapons from 1954 to 1992. Tests were performed with smallpox, plague and anthrax, including open-air tests of anthrax bomblets. The use of Renaissance Island for both bio-warfare experimentation and as a dumping ground for unwanted, but possibly still viable, anthrax has added to the man-made health risk for the people of the Aral Sea region and may potentially affect the toxicity of the dust. (Whish-Wilson)

Health Impacts

The longer-term impact of exposure to environmental pollutants on public health is beginning to be recognized. The population around the Aral Sea suffers from generally poor health, partly due to a breakdown of the health care infrastructure since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and partly due to socioeconomic and ecological factors. The deteriorating health situation is in parallel to the worsening ecological situation and the resulting worsening economical condition of the region (Ataniyazova, 2003).

Diseases seem to increase, particularly rates of anemia, tuberculosis, kidney and liver diseases, respiratory infections, allergies and cancer, which far exceed the rest of the former USSR and present-day Russia. Average life expectancy in the Kzyl-Orda region of Kazakhstan has declined from 64 to 51 years. Women and children are the most vulnerable. Maternal and infant morbidity and mortality are significantly higher in Karakalpakstan and Kzyl-Orda than in other parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. A high rate of anemia is found in almost all groups of women in Karakalpakstan—in 87% of teenagers, 91% of non-pregnant women, and in 99% of pregnant women. Anemia, the region’s greatest health problem, has been increasing for the last 20 years. In the 1980s only 17-20% of pregnant women had anemia. The level worsens during pregnancy—about 70% of pregnant women in Karakalpakstan have severe anemia by the third trimester. Most of these women have complications during pregnancy and delivery, including hemorrhages. Some 87% of newborn babies are also anemic. Untreated anemia in pregnancy and young children poses a high risk for weak immune systems and a risk for brain damage. High levels of reproductive pathologies (infertility, miscarriages, complications during pregnancy and in birth) have been observed in this region for more than 20 years. In a survey of 5,000 couples, 16% experienced infertility. Among infertile couples, male infertility increased from 30-40% in the 1980s to 65% in the late 1990s. Miscarriages rose to18% in 1998. The rate of birth abnormalities, another serious consequence of pollution, is also increasing (Ataniyazova, 2003).

One in every 20 babies is born with abnormalities, a figure approximately five times higher than European countries. Investigations have shown significantly high levels of organochlorine pesticides like HCB, -HCH, pp-DDE and pp-DDT in the plasma of pregnant women, again far higher than in European countries. The high levels of such pesticides, detected in most samples of Karakalpak women, pose severe risks for both mothers and their babies. The effects include changes in reproduction and fetal development, disturbance of endocrine function, neurobehavioral changes, soft tissue cancers, dermatological damage, immunosuppression, and changes in liver function. These findings have led to the conclusion that, due to the severe pollution of all natural resources in Karakalpakstan, the entire population has been chronically exposed to the chemicals for a long time (Ataniyazova, 2003).

The negative environmental factors (pesticides, high mineralization of water, imbalance of elements such as iodine deficiency) could be one of the main factors in the formation of negative health consequences for women and children in the Aral Sea region and, in combination with medical and social factors, result in the high level of pathologies, including maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. (Ataniyazova, 2003)

Restoration Efforts

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the new states of the region, assumed the responsibility for the Aral situation. In 1993, the presidents of the five republics signed an agreement to promote cooperation in solving the key issues of the region. To that end, they established the Interstate Council on the Problems of the Aral Sea Basin (ICAS) whose main purpose was to facilitate assistance from the World Bank and other international donors as well as responsibility for various assistance programs in the region. They also created an International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS) charged with collecting revenue from each basin state for financing the restoration efforts. The ICAS was abolished in 1997 and absorbed into a restructured IFAS whose leadership rotates every two years among Central Asian Heads of State (Micklin 2007).

The World Bank was the first major agency to become involved when international aid donors began providing water resource management assistance to the region. In the early 90s, the Bank in cooperation with the Aral Sea Basin governments developed a program to be carried out over 15-20 years at an initial cost estimate at $250 million (later raised to $470 million) called the Aral Sea Basin Assistance Program (ASBP). Its main goals were:

  • The rehabilitation and development of the Aral Sea Disaster Zone
  • Strategic planning and comprehensive management of the water resources of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya
  • Building institutions for planning and implementing the above programs (Micklin 2007).

IFAS leads the latest effort called “Program of Specific Actions fro Improving the Ecological and Social Situation in the Aral Sea Basin from 2003-2010” with a wide range of measures to improve health, welfare, and the environment including efforts to conserve and restore vegetation and pasture land in the deltas, to fight desertification, and to develop measures to prevent salt and dust transfers from the dried sea bottom (Micklin 2007).

Other international agencies contributing to the restoration effort include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who funded the Environmental Policy and Technology (EPT) project from 1993-1998, which improved drinking water supplies in the river deltas and helped develop regional water management policies and agreements. USAID also initiated a new program in 2001 called the National Resource Management Project (NRMP), a 5 year effort focused on providing assistance to the region to improve water, energy, and land resource management. The European Union initiated a major aid program in 1995 called the Water Resources Management and Agricultural Production in the Central Asian Republics Project (WARMAP) who provided a GIS-based land and water database for the basin for the World Bank and ICAS. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has aided in supporting regional organizations that deal with the crisis and promote sustainable development to those adjacent to the sea. The UNDP was also instrumental in convincing the five Central Asian presidents to sing the Declaration of Central Asian State and International Organizations on Sustainable Development of the Aral Sea Basin in 1995, committing the 5 states to pursue sustainable development in the management of land, water, biological resources, and human capital (Micklin, 2007).

Across the immediate Aral Sea region today, the lake’s desiccating retreat continues. Recent popular press accounts of the Aral’s ‘return’ seem overly optimistic when viewed at this larger regional scale. The smaller Little Aral in the north, located wholly within Kazakhstan, has been stabilized with the help of World Bank intervention. As part of what is termed the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea Phase 1 Project, an 8-mile (13 km) earthen dyke was completed in 2005. This dyke, the 200 m Kok Aral Dam, and significant re-channeling of the Syr Darya (including the Ak-lak spillway) have resulted in greater inflow into the Little Aral. The scale of the nearly $86 million project is enormous. A visit to this particular area in 2006, with its multiple concrete partitions, platoon of bulldozers and earth moving equipment, conjured images of the Soviet-era Stalinist plan to ‘remodel nature,’ though this time aimed at environmental restoration. The artificial capture and re-channeling of the Syr Darya, and the resulting expansion of the Little Aral has, for this small part of the Aral Sea, enabled the return of fishing as well as this small lake’s climatic moderation function. Total fish biomass (in the northern, Little Aral) has risen rapidly since the project’s completion, expanding from 3500 tons in 2005 to 18,000 tons in 2011. The return of fishing has brought hope and optimism to the Little Aral’s small, remote, sand-swept villages. Relative improvements in one small corner of the Aral Sea aside, the wider region today, particularly surrounding the larger, southern Aral, remains in ecological and socioeconomic crisis. This crisis, very much anthropogenic in origin, today continues to permeate the interrelationships between the region’s human populous and the natural environment (White, 2013).


Today, the Aral Sea and its tributaries are a fraction of their original size, accompanied by an increase its salinity that had decimated the region’s fishing industry, a mainstay of its local economies. The overuse of pesticides to increase crop yields have both leeched into the soil and merged with the salt of a drying seabed and have led to dramatically worsening health conditions and life expectancy throughout the region (Karakalpakstan in particular). Even further, toxic dust storms only increase the health issues and the boundaries crossed by the pollutants from the region. The response to the crisis has been one of cooperation between the affected regions as well as aid from international agencies with focus on sustainable practices. In this era of globalization, the catastrophe of the Aral may underscore the necessity to identify trans boundary issues so that they can be addressed through regional, national, and international cooperation and, perhaps even more, that the solution to large scale problems can begin with small scale changes.


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Image Credits:

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