Shagreen leather of Aral

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Thanks to the French writer Honore de Balzac, the whole world knows the parable about shagreen leather, which granted wishes, but every time after that decreased in size. It vividly illustrates the fate of the Aral Sea, which has decreased dramatically in size, fulfilling wishes of the people.

Not long ago, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world after the Caspian, Lake Superior in North America and Victoria in Africa, and its area was equal to the territory of Ireland. Fishing fleet and battleships travelled back and forth on the lake-sea. Ports and fisheries used to work on the shores of the Aral Sea. Coastal settlements were buried in lush gardens, flocks of water birds flew over the generous waters of the Central Asian sea, teeming with fish. Now, all of this has disappeared like a melted mirage in the desert. What is the reason of the Aral tragedy?


There is a theory that explains what happened by the cyclical development of natural landscapes of the Earth. Indeed, large fluctuations of the level of the Aral Sea have occurred earlier. So, remains of the trees that grew on this site and traces of human settlements were found on the bottom of the retreating sea. For example, archaeologists found the remains of the mausoleum, which age is about 600 years old, at the bottom of the sea in 2001.

Igor Kononov, a famous Ukrainian researcher of the evolution of the Aral Sea, has studied this problem for over 20 years; he says that during the last thousand years Aral Sea dried out at least three times (in X, XIV and XX centuries). The author considers the cross flow of underground rivers between the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea as the fundamental cause of the "insiccation". Such a scientific hypothesis can exist, because Aral rises over the Caspian Sea. Elevation changes between the seas is about 50-80 m. However, there is another powerful global factor as a periodic aridization of climate. Processes of the sea drying sharply intensified during the severe drought periods and reduction of the river flowing in 2007-2008.

Lev Gumilev, the twice doctor of geographical and historical sciences, mentions more ancient times, when the "desert approached the steppe from the south. The same landscape that exists in KyzylKum and Karakum, surrounded now the Aral Sea on its north side, which dried up, so it turned into a "swamp Oksiyskoe.”” After all even in the 355 - 357 years A.D., Greek Ammianus Marcellinus, a member of the Romans’ military campaigns to Asia, using probably messages of merchants or scouts, the first and only ancient writer, described Oksiyskoe swamp (the Aral Sea) as follows: "Two rivers flow between the Sogdian mountains, they are quite navigable. Their names are Araksat and Dima; through the mountains and valleys, they crush rapidly down on the plain covered with meadows, where they form a swamp called Oksiyskoe, which occupies a vast space".

Human factor

Still, most experts tend to believe that the modern Aral disaster is primarily a result of unreasoned human activity, a destructive and irrational use of water resources in the region.

Aral Sea Basin is a large landlocked region, which covers about 200 million hectares. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, three regions of Kazakhstan (Dzhambulskaya, Kyzylzordynskaya and Shymkentskaya), a part of Afghanistan and Iran are located within the boundaries of the basin. On average, the region's water resources, taking into account water storage basins, are 105 cubic kilometers, from which 92 are used for irrigation (29.5 – basin of Syrdarya river; 57.5 - Amudarya river; 5 – continental rivers). Thus, a considerable part of the flow is retained in reservoirs located in the upper reaches of the rivers.

The full-scale construction of irrigation canals began during the 30s in the USSR. Water of large rivers Amudarya and Syrdarya, pouring in Aral Sea, flowed onto the fields of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The world's largest channel - Karakum takes about 45% of the water from Amudarya. The Kizilsky canal, which irrigates central part of Uzbekistan, also starts from Amudarya. Vast fields of cotton and wheat (in Turkmenistan) stretch along these channels and Amudarya itself. Using irrigation, Uzbekistan collects about 10-20% of the world amount of cotton. For these reasons, Amudarya waters do not get to the Aral Sea most part of the year.

As a result, the delicate balance of the ecosystem of the Aral Sea has been upset. Since the 60s, it became clear that something is wrong with the sea. During the Soviet Union, the extent of deteriorating condition of the Aral Sea was suppressed for decades, until 1985, when the M.S. Gorbachev made this ecological catastrophe a property of the world publicity. At the end of the 1980s, the water level dropped so much that the sea divided into two parts: the northern Small Aral and southern Big Aral. In 2003, the surface area is reduced by three quarters, and the water volume by 90%!

The Soviet Union collapsed, and the implementation of an ambitious project to save Aral Sea by shifting waters of the Siberian rivers became impossible. It became clear that Aral Sea cannot be saved, and even if water is not used for agricultural purposes from the Syrdarya and Amudarya, it will take more than 200 years to restore the sea.

Consequences of the environmental disaster

The retreating sea has left behind 54 thousand square kilometers of a dry sea bottom, which became Aral-Kum desert. It is covered with salt, and in some places there are deposits of pesticides and various other agricultural poisoning chemicals that were washed way once from local fields. Currently, severe storms spread salt, dust and chemicals for hundreds and thousands of kilometers, especially to the Amudarya’s delta - the most densely populated area. Climate has changed within 100 km of the original coastline, it became hotter in the summer and colder in the winter and the level of humidity decreased.

The sea drying and the climate change led to the disappearance of several species of wild animals and plants in the region. As for the local population, according to medical experts, people suffer more from respiratory diseases, anemia, cancer of the throat and esophagus, as well as digestive disorders. Liver and kidney diseases, not to mention the eye diseases, became more frequent. So the scary dying sea take its revenge by destroying or slowing the development of the natural vegetation and crops in the most economically and ecologically important part of the entire region.

Cannot be restored

Alas, but the revival of the entire Aral Sea is impossible now. It would require to quadruple the annual inflow of Amudarya and Syrdarya waters compared to the current average. To rescue the sea and reduce the effects of the environmental disaster, countries of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) referred about two billion dollars to stabilize the situation in the Aral Sea region.

In 2003, Kazakhstan started trying to save at least something. The dam that was built in 2005, separated the Small Aral, where fishing industry began to revive, which led to a partial recovery of fish-factory in Aralsk. But, unfortunately, scientists say that the Big Aral may disappear completely by 2020. This is one of the saddest and most instructive natural - anthropological disasters in the human history.

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