“The quiet Chernobyl.” “The epitome of environmental malpractice.” “One of the planet’s most shocking environmental disasters.” Ecology experts describe the collapse of the Aral Sea in the starkest terms. And it’s no exaggeration.
Located in what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea was massive and thriving for thousands of years. With a surface area around 26,000 square miles, equivalent in size to West Virginia, it was the fourth-largest lake in the world. Its waters contained only about 10 grams of salt per liter, so it was rich in both freshwater and saline fish. Bream, carp, trout, flounder and sturgeon were particularly bountiful. In the 1950s, anglers pulled more than 45,000 tons of fish from its waters each year. It was a major hub of life and a major source of food—a vast oasis soothing the deserts of Central Asia.
The Aral lost millions of gallons annually to evaporation and seepage. But the 14 cubic miles of water it received each year from two great rivers, the Amu and the Syr, balanced out the losses and kept the ecosystems thriving.
(Listen to the podcast episode about this inspiring story):
That was the general situation for millennia. And during the first decades of the Soviet era, little changed. The Soviets depended on the Aral’s catches, so towns bustled along its shores with some 60,000 people working in fishing and related industries.
But shortly after World War ii, Soviet leaders developed a new obsession that would change everything.
This obsession was over a certain versatile raw material. It was a key element in weapons production, which was a priority for the Soviets, as well as in the manufacture of everything from books to soaps to plastics to animal feeds to clothing of all kinds. At times it was spun so finely, textile workers called it “woven wind.” Importantly, it could also be exported to European markets at premium prices. This material was of such strategic importance that in a landmark speech about the pillars of the Soviet economy, dictator Joseph Stalin listed it right alongside metals, fuel and grain.
This raw material was cotton. The Soviets called it “white gold,” and in the mid-20th century they began dramatically increasing production.
In areas near the Aral they focused on a particularly prized, long-stemmed variety. The trouble is that long-stemmed cotton is one of the world’s thirstiest plants. So in 1961, the Soviets began diverting great quantities of water from the Amu and Syr rivers toward the cotton fields, part of Stalin’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.”
The Soviets were soon harvesting millions of tons of cotton from the region each year. By 1974, the Aral was receiving only two cubic miles of river water annually. It was obvious that this was reshaping the ecosystem in awful ways, but the Soviet priority was white gold. They doubled down, and by 1989, the Aral was receiving just one cubic mile of water each year.
In 30 years, the flows into the Aral Sea had dropped by more than 90 percent.
One Sea Becomes Four
During the 1960s, the Aral’s level fell by 8 inches per year. In the 1970s, it fell by 22 inches per year. In 1987, the shrinking sea split into the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea.
Dozens of vessels that failed to outpace the evaporation ran aground as their waterways transformed into dry land. There they lay, in ship graveyards, rusting under the relentless desert sun and collapsing in on themselves.
By 1997, the retreating Aral was four separate lakes. Their combined surface area was about 10 percent the original size, shrinking from the size of West Virginia to the size of Delaware. “No large body of water in modern history has disappeared at such a rate,” wrote Oklahoma State University professor of geography Reuel R. Hanks. This was “the greatest human-induced ecological catastrophe in history.”
The remaining waters had become far saltier. By 2003, the southern lakes were seven times saltier than the Aral had been in 1960, twice as salty as ocean water, and the North Aral was three times saltier. The fish died, as did the majority of plants. Great numbers of birds, mammals and other animals vanished from the area. Only brine shrimp and bacteria could survive.
As the sea dried up, so did the local economy. Towns that had long hummed with fishermen were now miles away from the sinking shorelines. They too began to empty, and the people who remained began suffering a range of health problems. The receding sea had exposed 20,000 square miles of seabed, much of which was choked with salt and poisoned by extremely destructive pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals brought in by runoff from farming. Windstorms blew the contaminated dust around the region.
“[T]he local population suffers from high levels of respiratory illnesses, throat and esophageal cancer,” the Scientific American wrote in April 2008, as well as “digestive disorders caused by breathing and ingesting salt-laden air and water. Liver and kidney ailments, as well as eye problems, are common.” Rates of jaundice and Hepatitis A were also sky high. In some areas, 1 out of every 10 newborns died.
These tragic numbers show that an environmental disaster can quickly become an economic crisis and a health catastrophe. It was a multifaceted ruin, brought about by the extreme greed of a totalitarian government. The Soviets had virtually asphyxiated the Aral.
But this history does not end with Soviet avarice destroying the Aral Sea—at least not all of it.
‘Like a Fairytale’
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan became autonomous nations. The border drawn between them went through the Aral area, with Uzbekistan controlling half of the South Aral Sea, and Kazakhstan controlling the other half and the North Aral.
The Kazakh leadership acknowledged the colossal damage that had been done and set out to reverse it. They built a large earthen dike along the North Aral’s edge to prevent outflow of water to areas where it would rapidly evaporate. This action, though small-scale and imperfect, raised water levels by a measurable amount and reduced salinity. The effort looked promising until 1999, when the dike collapsed and all gains were lost.
But hope was not lost.
This effort had showed the Kazakhs that the water level could be improved, which would lead to other positive trends. So Kazakhstan, along with the World Bank, began building a more resilient dike. The Kok-Aral Dam, 8 miles long with gated concrete fortifications, was completed in 2005. At the same time, the Kazakhs made major improvements to the irrigation works on the Syr River, diverting less of its water and increasing flows into the North Aral.
These efforts combined to lift the North Aral’s water level 6 feet in just eight months. Surface area grew by 18 percent, and salinity steadily dropped. Years passed, water levels kept rising and salinity kept falling. The World Bank reported in 2008 that overall volume had increased by 68 percent and that the benefits had “exceeded the project expectations.” Officials began reintroducing freshwater fish species. About 20 began to thrive.
In 2016, the Aralsk Fish Inspection Unit recorded 7,106 tons of fish caught in the North Aral—a 422 percent increase in the 11 years since the completion of the Kok-Aral. With the return of fish came the return of a wide range of flora and fauna.
“Suddenly, in the Aral Sea, life is coming back,” French photographer Didier Bizet wrote during a 2016 visit to the village of Tastubek near the shore of the North Aral. “The water is back—it’s like a fairytale.”
The water returned, the wildlife returned, and so did the people. Local media reported in 2017 that more than 5,000 individuals had returned to the area and that the trend was accelerating each year.
The Kazakhs also put a plan in place for areas where water will not return soon, if at all, including planting 4,000 square miles with saxaul trees. The soil is still contaminated with salt and chemicals, but these small trees can still take root, preventing much of it from blowing into the air. With about a quarter of the plantings completed, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources reported that the effort had made noticeable improvements to air and water quality.
Seeing part of the North Aral returning to life “like a fairytale” is inspiring. But the sea as a whole remains a desiccated shell of its former glory. That oasis of life is still overwhelmingly dried, wasted, polluted, deserted and dead—a magnificent desolation.
A great deal of the Earth’s surface is in this condition. Almost one third of the landmass is desert, partly because of exploitative, destructive human activity.
Is this just the way it is? Is this meant to be? Is there hope for the Earth and its inhabitants?
‘The Desert Shall Rejoice’
This planet, abundant with life, is a massive, resilient, timeless testament to its Creator. He designed it, built it and sustains it, and He cares deeply about its lands, waters, animals and especially its people. He sees its ecological catastrophes. And He has a plan for the whole Earth far beyond this “fairytale.”
“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing …” (Isaiah 35:1-2).
This is a scripture for the future. Human activity today is inflicting mass destruction upon ourselves and our environs that is beyond imagination. But the Creator holds out hope: An astounding rejuvenation will happen not just across a few hundred square miles, but across deserted lands worldwide.
Isaiah 41:19 provides some specifics of how this blossoming will come about: “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together” (Revised Standard Version).
The photos of those small, scraggly saxaul trees defiantly putting forth green growth in the dead Aral basins are inspiring. Yet the ecosystem described in Isaiah will be lush with a range of much larger trees growing from much richer soils. There will be “water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19-20). This will create verdant and diverse biomes, fostering all manner of plants and animals. Vast tracts of dead land will become fertile. Other scriptures describing this same revival specify that waters currently dead with salinity will be healed and become rife with life (see Ezekiel 47).
The deserts of the world will teem with life, growth and abundance.
The late educator Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about this future global greening project in his booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like. “Can you imagine such a fabulous scene? Deserts becoming green, fertile, garden lands of trees, shrubs, bubbling springs and brooks …,” he wrote. “Multiple millions of acres of unbelievably fertile, productive, wonderful farmland suddenly become available—just waiting to be discovered and pioneered. … Think about the vast wastes of this Earth. Does it sound incredible, unbelievable that God could make them blossom like a rose? Why should it?”
These questions, especially in light of the North Aral “fairytale,” give a reader much to meditate on. People in a poor nation, using a relatively simple dam project, lots of hard work and humble saxaul trees give us an inspiring, if limited, example of the restoration of what we previously destroyed. How much more effective will the God who created Earth and its ecosystems, rivers, lakes, seas, trees and fish be when He sets His hand, and works through His perfect government, to restore the wastes?