The Sea That Became a Desert

One of mankind’s ugliest environmental disasters—and how it will be fixed!

It was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. Now it’s mostly a toxic desert. It covers an area over half the size of Iceland.

Situated in Central Asia, the Aral Sea was once a vast oasis amid an even vaster area of dry land.

Since 1960, the Aral Sea has shrunk by over 50 percent. Once a freshwater lake, it is now over twice as salty as the average ocean. Once the source for one sixth of the Soviet Union’s seafood, it is now an aquatic graveyard. Huge boats lie marooned in the desert. The lake dried up so fast that boat owners didn’t think to relocate their ships until it was too late.

The sea used to cool the air for miles around. Now the local climate is hotter and drier in the summer and colder for longer in the winter. The surrounding region, already dry, is becoming a hard desert.

This is not some nebulous, global-warming-type threat based on the predictions of computer models. This is actual, measurable and provable local climate change that has already happened.

This crisis stands to affect 40 million people. The two rivers that feed the Aral Sea—the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya—flow from the Tian-Shan Mountains over 500 miles away. Experts worry that the hotter local climate could cause the sources of these rivers to dry up. If this happens, all of southern Central Asia will lose its rivers.

Tens of millions will be left without food and water.

A Toxic Dump

Beyond the mass evaporation, the Aral is turning into a toxic dump.

For decades, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals used on surrounding farmlands washed into the lake. As the water fled, these chemicals settled in the lakebed, forming a desert of deadly toxic dust. Today, strong winds blow the dust for hundreds of miles. These clouds of death damage and kill crops and vegetation in their path.

They are affecting humans, too. “Health experts say the local population suffers from high levels of respiratory illnesses, throat and esophageal cancer, and digestive disorders caused by breathing and ingesting salt-laden air and water,” Scientific American reported in April 2008. “Liver and kidney ailments, as well as eye problems, are common. The loss of fish has also greatly reduced dietary variety, worsening malnutrition and anemia, particularly in pregnant women.”

New Scientist writer Fred Pearce visited Karakalpakstan, an area close to the Aral Sea, while researching his book When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century, published in 2006. The region, Pearce wrote, “felt like the end of the world.”

In his book, Pearce details the horrific health problems that have hit Karakalpakstan in the wake of the Aral’s disappearance. Ninety-seven percent of the women are anemic. Eighty-seven percent of the children are born with anemia. One in 20 babies has a birth defect. The region has the highest infant mortality rate in the former Soviet Union. It has the highest rate of cancer of the esophagus in the world, and one of the highest rates of tuberculosis.

In the area around the Aral Sea, life expectancy has fallen from 64 years to 51.

And it could get worse. Vozrozhdeniya Island, in the middle of the Aral Sea, was once the world’s largest biological weapons testing site. Here, Soviet scientists infected animals with anthrax, bubonic plague and other bacteria. In the 1980s they buried tons of live anthrax on the island, thinking it would never be transported to the mainland. In 1999 scientists found live anthrax spores on the island. After 9/11 a few Americans spent a few months cleaning up the island. By comparison, Gruinard Island, where the British once tested anthrax, was only declared safe 48 years after the testing stopped. Even then, the entire area had been soaked in formaldehyde. The cleanup on Vozrozhdeniya hasn’t been nearly as extensive.

Now, thanks to the drying Aral, Vozrozhdeniya is no longer an island. Experts fear that animals could carry the weaponized microbes to populated areas. Looters visit the area regularly, making a living off of collecting what the Soviets left behind. Who knows what they could dig up?

This has to be one of mankind’s worst environmental disasters ever. It is hard to imagine how you could mess up an area so badly without doing it on purpose.

No Isolated Example

The Aral Sea disaster was caused by gross water mismanagement during the days of the Soviet Union. Starting in the 1940s, the Soviets dug irrigation canals from the two rivers that feed the Aral. The canals were poorly built, badly maintained and horribly leaky. Most were carved directly into the sand. Scientists estimate that in one of the largest of these canals, the Karakum Canal, around 60 percent of the water soaked directly into the ground and was wasted.

The water is used to irrigate cotton—a thirsty plant hardly suitable for Central Asia, but one that fetches a high price on the international market. Even today the five nations around the Aral Sea—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—all rank among the top seven water users per person in the world.

The Soviets knew these practices would drain the Aral, but they didn’t care. They reasoned that this would only give them more land on which to grow cotton. Instead, they have bitten off the hand that fed them: The rivers that carry water to the canals are the same ones that may disappear.

Perhaps it is easy to dismiss the crisis in the Aral as yet another disaster caused by communism and the Soviet Union. But the root cause isn’t communism, nor is it the Russians.

The fact is, there are environmental crises like the Aral all over the world.

With the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the United States has made a mess of the Gulf of Mexico, spreading oil over an area of over 4,000 square miles. Granted, this single accident, perhaps due to carelessness, is not the same as decades of mismanagement—but then again, there have been many similar spills, several of which were even larger. Man has been tipping oil into the oceans for years through these kinds of accidents.

In Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin—once a well-watered area responsible for 40 percent of Australia’s agricultural output—is drying up. Some of the lakes are turning into sulfuric acid. The whole area is becoming increasingly salty.

In Iraq, the Shatt al-Arab marshlands are suffering a similar fate. The 6,000 square miles of wetland form where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. “The waterway running from a land once synonymous with paradise to the Gulf is in the grip of an environmental catastrophe left by war, dictatorship, human thirst, and a criminal disregard for the fragility of water, the essence of life,” wrote the Times. The water level is so low that salty water from the sea is creeping into the area—killing the ecosystem.

Every continent in the world has similar examples. And such destruction is not purely a modern phenomenon. Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, for example, were once full of forests. Today they are known for their deserts.

Man has been destroying his environment for centuries. Of course, modern technology has allowed him to destroy it faster than ever before.

Tohu and Bohu

The Bible prophesied that in these modern times, man would be able to bring this level of destruction not just to some scattered areas around the globe, but to the whole Earth.

God gave the Prophet Jeremiah a vision of what this planet would look like in the end time. In Jeremiah 4:23, he wrote, “I beheld the earth, and, lo it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.” The words translated “without form, and void” are the Hebrew tohu and bohu. A better translation of these words, as Herbert Armstrong explained in Mystery of the Ages, is “waste and empty” or “chaotic, in confusion and in a state of decay.”

Is there a more apt description of the Aral Sea?

Yet this condition only stands to get worse. In fact, Matthew 24:22 warns that if Christ did not return, mankind would wipe itself out. This too evokes images of the Aral Sea today. Fred Pearce wonders how much longer the area will be able to support human life. “Was I meeting the last farmers of Karakalpakstan?” he asks in his book.

What is the cause for the devastation in the Aral, in the Murray-Darling Basin, and ultimately the whole world?

Ultimately it is greed. The way of get. Short-term self-interest. Self-love.

In the Aral, the Russian central planners were greedy for the export revenues they could generate from growing all that cotton. They had no concern for the future of the Aral or of the people who lived around the sea.

The disappearing Aral Sea is a grotesque monument to the fact that greed brings destruction.

After the Soviet Union disbanded, the sea could still have been saved. Yet the rivers that feed the sea, and the irrigation canals coming from them, flow through five different countries. These countries couldn’t work together to save the sea. Now they are all about to suffer from its disappearance. Again, greed and self-love—the desire to have their own water and cotton exports—led to this destruction.

The real solution to the Aral Sea problem lies not in new, bigger and better canals or dams. It is in fixing this fundamental flaw in mankind: the ways of greed and get that are central to human existence today.

Absent that solution, no group of nations will be able to band together to save the Aral Sea.

Streams in the Desert

Although the Bible says the whole Earth will reach this Aral Sea-like condition, it also teaches that Christ will step in and save man from himself. After rescuing humanity from the brink of extinction, Christ will then rule over the Kingdom of God, which will be established on Earth.

Man’s very nature will be changed, away from his ways of get and self-interest and toward God’s way of give. Request our free booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like for a thorough explanation of this beautiful, prophetic truth.

Then, and only then, can man’s environmental problems be solved.

Read Isaiah’s prophecy about this time: “[I]n the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water …” (Isaiah 35:6-7).

Rather than relying on himself to solve his problems, man will finally look to God. With that trust in self finally gone, God will be able to help man solve all his problems, physical and spiritual.

Self-reliance and the way of get brought us the current Aral Sea. Only reliance on God and the way of give can fix it.

Then, God will cause the rain to fall in the right places at the right time, so these massive dams and irrigation projects aren’t needed (Deuteronomy 28:12).

He promises to supernaturally make water available in the desert: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains [artesian wells] in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the [acacia] tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the [cypress] together: That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isaiah 41:17-20).

Of course man will still have to work to improve and beautify his surroundings. But any engineering projects will be done in order to give. The needs of others, even of future generations, will be at the forefront of the planners’ minds. And as they look to God for direction, they won’t embark on any misguided projects that only backfire in the future, making the problem worse.

Cotton exports won’t be the priority in these projects. People will build with more than the area’s inhabitants in mind. They will be thinking of their children and their children’s children. They will seek a permanent improvement, not a superficial, short-term gain.

Back to Life

In November 2005, Kazakhstan completed a dam, funded by the World Bank, on the south side of a lake that was once part of the Aral Sea. Called the Small Aral, this lake used to be the northern part of the sea. In eight months, the dam proved a success. The water level rose from 131 feet to 138. Its area increased by 18 percent, and the salinity was cut in half.

Fish that were once abundant in the sea are returning. The area is coming back to life.

Of course, this is a far cry from fixing the whole sea—but fixing just a small part of it shows that what was once lost can be restored.

The same is true for this whole planet. No matter how horribly man wrecks it in the future, God promises that it can and will be fixed. The Aral, the Murray-Darling, Lebanon and the whole Earth can and will bounce back. With God’s supernatural help, it will become more beautiful than ever.

Once the root problem with man has been fixed, the Aral will do more than return to its former glory. It will be better, and keep getting better, as mankind looks to God, and works to give, by turning the whole Earth into a Garden of Eden.