Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
Now, thanks to a project to save the northern part of the sea, the water is heading back toward Aral and is now just 17 kilometers away, Kyzylorda regional governor Krymbek Kusherbayev says.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
But while the northern part of the sea recovers, the southern section is withering away. The sea, shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, split into two parts in the 1980s due to the relentless diversion of the region’s mighty rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, for irrigation. The impact was devastating: what was in 1960 the world's fourth-largest lake contracted by 70 percent from 1960 to 2004, causing an environmental disaster across swathes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
There are no efforts under way to save the southern sector in Uzbekistan, but Kazakhstan is harboring high hopes about saving the Northern Aral Sea. The second phase of the recovery project began in late 2012 and is expected to bring the waters back to the depressed town of Aral, which has suffered environmental and economic devastation from the sea’s disappearance.