They say that cosmonauts were the first of the humans to see the Aral Sea split into two basins. But it took years before the geographical maps began to picture this extraordinary event in the life of our planet.
The Aral Sea is relatively young water body. According to one of the hypotheses it appeared about 10 thousand years ago. Twice during its lifetime it grew shallow, but each time its waters rose again to the mark of 55 meters above sea level. Every year the Aral Sea received about 56 cubic kilometers of water. The fate of the sea was decided last century, when the water of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – rivers which fed the sea – was drained into a maze of irrigation canals to support cotton-growing. From the 1960s the water flow of these great Central Asian rivers started to decrease: the areas of the cotton fields grew rapidly and needed intensive watering. As a result the Aral Sea stopped being an inseparable water area, its water level dropped to less than 40 meters. The sea split up into two separate basins: the largest southern one, on the territory of Uzbekistan, with the Amu Darya flowing into it, and the northern one, fed by the Syr Darya in Kazakhstan territory.
By the beginning of the new millennium the sea had lost three forth of its volume and it had shrunk to a half of its original surface area; the shoreline had receded by 100 – 150 kilometers. Renaissance Island located roughly in the middle of the sea had turned into peninsula. In the delta of the Amu Darya many of the river’s distributaries and little lakes dried out or were gone shallow. The tugai bush river-bank forest, the habitat of musk-rats and pheasants, thinned out. The climate changed not only in the Aral Sea area itself but also in the central and southern parts of Uzbekistan, as well as in the neighboring countries. The deterioration of the environment has led to the extinction in the area of koulans (Asiatic wild ass), argali, striped hyenas, and cheetahs. The population of the saigas has been endangered. Over a half of the genetic fund of the wildlife of the Aral Sea region has been lost.
The recession of water stock in the sea has doubled its salinity. The situation is aggravated by the fertilizers that the rivers wash off the fields and bring to the region. Little by little the concentration of the poisonous substance rose to such a level that almost all of the Aral Sea fauna perished or mutated. The sea fish resources once seemed inexhaustible. Local people used to industrially fish thirty-eight species, including carps, breams and asps. Today the Aral Sea fishery has become a thing of the past. The freshwater fishes are gone; among them are such endemic species as Aral and Syr Darya sturgeons.
The town of Muynak is one of the striking examples of the ecological disaster in the region. It was once the largest Karakalpakstan’s port and Aral Sea center of fishery. In 1963 it was given the status of a town, and within 15–20 years its population grew to over 100 thousand. By now its population has dropped by more than two-thirds; the scarce natural resources made many of its citizens to leave. The sea is dying, so is the city. As far back as the 1980s, Muynak fish cannery had to start using imported frozen Baltic sardines due to a considerable reduction of catch of local fish resources. When the sea began shrinking rapidly and its shores turned into wasteland, the people tried to keep their connection with the water. They built canals for their boats to get to the berths and warehouses. But soon it was clear that these efforts were useless: the sea was shrinking too fast. Formerly, on reaching Muynak the Amu Darya river used to be 3 kilometers wide, whereas today, even during its maximum flow, the width of the river does not exceed 300 meters. In some dry years the Amu Darya did not reach the town at all, and fresh drinking water had to be delivered to the city in helicopters.
In the center of Muynak there once was a memorial obelisk from which just 30 years ago one could observe a spectacular view – the sea surface stretching away to the horizon. Today, wherever you look, there is only a sprawling sand desert with rare clumps of saxaul. The area of the former port still displays huge concrete boxes of fish warehouses. The air still smells of fish, as if the last catch was processed there only yesterday. Where at one time there was a busy harbor today one can see only rusting hulks of abandoned fishing boats and big barges. Beached awkwardly in the desert sand and loess dust, stripped to the frames, they look like skeletons of giant sea animals thrown to the desert shore by tidal wave.Some of the sea boats have already been dismantled for scrap; some are still to be processed. But a few of them are in good condition and, as people say, will be able to sail and fish when the sea comes back.
Muynak has become a huge graveyard of ships. It is a tragic monument to the Aral Sea ecological disaster caused by man.
However, in recent years there has appeared a real possibility of saving the sea. A few years ago, on the northern, Kazakh part of the sea, there was built Kokaral Dam with nine sluices. It controls the inflow of waters coming from the Syr Darya. Thanks to the dam the level of water has begun to rise rapidly allowing its surplus to be discharged to the southern, Uzbek part of the sea. Now there have showed up flocks of pelicans and seagulls, and the fishery at the sea has been resumed. Its shores are getting back their original look.
This achievement proves that the southern part of the Aral Sea can be revived, too. However, so far Uzbekistan cannot afford itself to carry out all the necessary hydro engineering works and to build the appropriate structures. It is well known that Kokaral Dam project was elaborated by scientists and engineers from many countries; it was sponsored by international organizations, including UN, World Bank and NATO. The Aral Sea crisis is a vivid example of what may happen in many other countries under global climate changes; the consequences of such a crisis will surely give rise to new ecological, social, economic and political challenges.