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The Aral Sea: The Toxic Soviet Sea

Way out in the wilds of Central Asia, on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, lies the toxic remains

of a dying sea.

For thousands of years, this sea was a lifegiver, bringing food, trade, and civilization.

Covering an area the size of Ireland, it was the fourth largest freshwater lake in the

world.

But then, in the middle of the 20th Century, something happened.

An irrigation project went wrong, depriving the sea of vital water.

In its place came toxic chemicals, poisons, and shores of unbreathable dust.

Today, the sea is so deadly it’s been called the Silent Chernobyl.

But you likely know it by another name: the Aral Sea, the Soviet Union’s greatest natural

disaster.

Beginning in 1948, Moscow diverted water away from the rivers feeding the sea towards agriculture.

The plan was to make Central Asia into a fertile land of plenty.

Instead, it triggered an environmental catastrophe so staggering we still don’t know it’s

true toll.

From an ancient oasis to a modern desert ravaged by cancer-causing storms, this is the story

of the Aral Sea… and the bygone empire that killed it.

The Ancient Sea Two and a half thousand years ago, Alexander

the Great stood on the shores of the surging river, surveying the waters.

Behind him lay the vast swathe of land he and his armies had overrun.

Ahead lay an unknown frontier, a wilderness of tribes and bandits and harsh desert stretching

out as far as the eye could see.

As Alexander stood at the farthest northern extent of his ancient empire, little did he

know that this wasn’t the end of the world.

That the river before him led not to empty wasteland, but to an expanse of water so vast

it dominated the horizon.

Today, we know that expanse as the Aral Sea.

First appearing some 11,000 years ago, the existence of the Aral Sea was a pleasing historical

mistake.

At the very end of the Neogene Period - a period of time so far back we might as well

just call it Long Ago BC - a depression formed in Central Asia on the border area of modern-day

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

And there it remained for millions of years, doing nothing but being all low and depressing,

until the Amu Darya decided to change course.

Since time immemorial, the Amu Darya had flowed into the vast Caspian Sea to the west.

But now it began to flow instead into the Aral Depression.

As it flowed, the depression began to fill up.

Began to look less like a depressing dip in the landscape…

...and more like a lake.

From this chance hydrological event, the Aral Sea was born.

By the time Alexander the Great made it to the shores of the second river feeding it,

the sea was one of the vastest lakes on Earth.

You know Lake Biakal in Russia?

A lake so famously large that it makes Loch Ness look like an embarrassing puddle?

Well the Aral Sea was over twice the size of that, and only ever so slightly smaller

than Africa’s Lake Victoria.

As a result, it drew thousands upon thousands of peoples to its shorelines, from Tajiks

and Uzbeks to Kazakhs, lured in by the promise of freshwater fish to hunt and islands to

colonize.

Yep, freshwater.

Despite its name, the Aral Sea is not a sea in the “undrinkable saltwater” sense,

but a regular lake with a salinity of around 10g of salt per liter - compared to 35g per

liter for your average ocean.

Not exactly something you want coming out your tap, but fresh enough for fish like carp

to survive.

As for the islands; the Aral Sea is home to 1,000 islands each over 1 hectare in size.

The name even comes from the Kyrgyz word Aral-denghiz, meaning “Sea of Islands.”

For ancient peoples, this fish-stuffed, island-filled sea basically hit the civilization G-Spot.

As cultures flourished along its shores, it became a famous stopping point along the Silk

Road.

But even in the dim and distant past, it was clear just how delicate the Aral Sea was.

At some point in the Middle Ages, something happened to one of the two rivers feeding

the Sea.

We’re still not entirely sure what that “something” was; if it was human-driven,

or related to some external factor.

Either way, the result was an apocalyptic disaster.

Shorn of one of its inflows, the Aral Sea began to dry up.

As it dried, it shrank, until entire shoreside townships were abandoned dozens of kilometers

from its waters.

With the drying came economic catastrophe.

By 1417, court historian Hafizi-Abru was able to write that the sea no longer existed.

Thankfully, this spell of dryness didn’t last.

At some point in the 16th Century, the Aral Sea began to return.

By 1570, documents suggest that it had regained its full size.

It was a historical near-miss, a moment when the lake was very nearly wiped out.

But it was also a warning to the future.

A warning that the delicate ecology of the world’s 4th largest lake could easily be

destroyed.

Unfortunately, the future wasn’t in the mood for listening.

Here Come the Russians If there’s a single person you can blame

for the destruction of the Aral Sea, it’s Aleksandr Voeikov.

Voeikov was born in 1842, right around the time Tsar Nicholas I was beginning the wars

that would bring the Aral Sea within the Russian Empire.

But Voeikov wasn’t a soldier or a politician.

He was a climatologist.

One who developed a bizarre dislike for the Aral Sea.

Because the Aral Sea has no outflow and is instead maintained by evaporation, Voeikov

seems to have taken offense to its very existence, calling it a “useless evaporator,” and

a “mistake of nature.”

But what could Voeikov do about it?

When he died in 1916, the lake remained; an inarguable fact of nature.

But Voeikov’s writings survived.

What’s more they influenced a whole generation.

A generation who would soon be running the former Russian Empire.

Cut ahead to 1948.

In the years after Voeikov died, Imperial Russia fell, the areas around the Aral Sea

tasted independence, and then were absorbed into the new USSR as the Kazakh and Uzbek

Soviet Socialist Republics.

Alongside this geopolitical shakeup, Lenin had died, Stalin had come to power, and decades

of state-engineered famines, purges, and other assorted horrors had wreaked havoc across

the empire.

And now Stalin wanted to go even further than bending mere humans to his will.

He wanted to mould the landscape itself.

The Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was the first major Soviet attempt to remake

the “non-productive” areas of the empire.

“Non-productive” in this case meaning virgin forests, centers of rural life, or

inland seas supporting fishing villages - stuff you and I might class as “actually really

kinda productive”.

But Uncle Joe preferred a definition of “productive” that involved not ordinary people living ordinary

lives, but vast plantations making Moscow rich.

And so it was that a network of irrigation channels began to spring up from the rivers

feeding the Aral Sea, diverting water for growing cotton.

Initially, these new Central Asian farms of “white gold” didn’t effect the rivers

much.

There was just so much water, how could humans possibly exhaust it all?

And even if they did, who cared?

The people running the Soviet Ministry of Water could all recall Voeikov’s words.

If the Aral Sea was a “useless evaporator” weren’t they justified in putting its water

to better use?

This toxic attitude prevailed even as Khrushchev took over after Stalin’s death and launched

his own Virgin Lands Campaign.

It prevailed even as irrigation channels criss-crossed Central Asia, diverting so much water that

it was a miracle the sea survived.

Yet, survive it did.

As 1960 dawned, the Aral Sea was in rude health.

Stretching 435km north to south, and 290km east to west, it was the center of vital local

economies.

Fishing villages dominated its shores.

There were wetlands, river deltas, hidden bays; thriving and irreplaceable ecosystems.

Local towns thrived, too, like Aralsk, or Tastubek - famous for its caviar.

Were you to stand on the shorelines back then, you would’ve watched the fishermen in their

boats, watched the children swimming, and thought to yourself that this was a vista

that would last forever.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

By 1960, the Water Ministry knew the Aral Sea was like a camel with a back so bent its

spine was one single straw away from snapping.

They could stop digging irrigation ditches right now, and preserve this perfect balance,

maintaining a living lake while also growing a decent amount of cotton.

But “a decent amount” simply wasn’t enough.

The leadership wanted more white gold.

Eyes wide open, still loyally quoting Voeikov, the Ministry of Water demanded yet more channels

be dug, yet more flow diverted.

Although they knew what they were doing, they assumed it would take decades for the effects

to be felt.

Generations, even.

They were wrong.

The Dying Sea

In the summer of 1967, word began to go around the small Kazakh town of Tastubek that something

was wrong.

As a center of caviar exports, the locals were attuned to the ecosystem they worked

in.

The Aral Sea had been sustaining life here for centuries.

But now something was happening.

Almost before their eyes, the residents could see the waters drawing back, away from the

shoreline, leaving the town behind.

Those locals had no way of knowing it, but their town was like a canary lowered into

a coalmine to check for leaking gas.

And the agonizing death of their economy would be early warning of the oncoming explosion.

Over the next few years, the effects of water diversion began to become clearer and clearer.

By 1973, some of the wetlands and deltas had vanished, replaced by sandy desert.

By 1980, the rivers feeding the sea were starting to run dry in the summer months, when temperatures

soar to 40C.

But it was over the next decade that the effects would really take hold.

As the 1980s wore on, the shores of the Aral Sea retreated.

They moved slowly at first, then quicker and quicker until old fishing villages were stranded

two hours’ journey from the nearest fish.

As the waters receded, the 1,000 islands the Sea was famous for stopped being islands,

first becoming peninsulas, and then just outcrops of rock in the midst of desert.

One of these former islands was Aralsk-7, a secret bioweapons facility where Soviet

scientists engineered weaponized Plague.

As you’ll know if you’ve watched our video on it, Aralsk-7 had been selected on the assumption

that the Aral Sea’s waters would stop its microscopic nightmares from escaping.

And now the sea was gone, leaving nothing between plague-carrying rats and hundreds

of Kazakh villages.

By 1987, the drying was so bad that there was no longer a single Aral Sea.

Instead, the waters split in two, creating a smaller North Aral Sea inside Kazakhstan,

and a larger South Aral Sea mostly in Uzbekistan.

As these two seas shrank, the salinity of the water increased, jumping from 10 grams

per liter to 110.

In this toxic environment, fish began to die off, leaving entire villages starving.

Come 1992, the combined area of the North and South Aral Seas was only 33,800 km2 - barely

half the area they’d once covered.

The good news was that, come 1992, the Ministry of Water was no longer a thing.

And neither was the Soviet Union.

The USSR had collapsed in 1991, ending the drive for cotton production in Central Asia.

Unfortunately, the successor governments had all realized they were staring down the barrel

of economic ruin without the cotton, and so kept on growing it.

And so, the Sea slowly died.

By 2002, the South Aral Sea had subdivided again, splitting into the East and West Sea.

As the 21st Century dawned, towns sustained by the sea for centuries were now abandoned

some 90km from the water.

Between them and the receding shore lay nothing but empty desert spotted with the decaying

hulks of abandoned ships.

Faced with ruin, the people living around the Sea abandoned it.

Those who could, fled.

Those who couldn’t sank into poverty, illness, and death.

Come 2010, the East Aral Sea was barely a fifth the size it had been in 2002.

In 2014, it dried up entirely.

In five decades, Soviet mismanagement had done what Voeikov could never have dreamed

of.

It had killed the “useless evaporator,” desiccating the Sea in a way unseen even during

the Middle Ages.

But it wasn’t just the lack of water that caused disaster.

There’s a reason some refer to the Aral Sea as the Silent Chernobyl.

Like Chernobyl, it was a disaster made of Soviet incompetence.

Like Chernobyl, it left behind a ghost town - or towns, in this case.

And, like Chernobyl, it was a disaster that could kill you.

The Wasteland In 2015, National Geographic published a series

of interviews with locals living around the ruins of the former Aral Sea.

One of them, Yusup Kamalov from the lakeside region of Karakalpakstan, summed up the devastation

as follows: “This is what the end of the world looks

like,” he said, “If we ever have Armageddon, the people of Karakalpakstan are the only

ones who will survive, because we are already living it.”

The Armageddon he was referring to was more than just visual.

Although photos of the dried seabed littered with dead ships may look strangely beautiful,

the reality of living there is anything but.

As the sea dried, it left behind ground that was saturated in salt.

While the Soviet water scientists had predicted it would bake into a hard crust, it instead

remained loose, at the whims of the lightest breeze.

The result is salt storms that can blow up out of nowhere, stinging your eyes and making

you feel deathly ill.

But the painful concentrations of salt are just the tip of the iceberg.

The dust storms also blow deadly quantities of DDT, phosalone, and other pesticides.

All are known to cause cancer after prolonged exposure, plus all manner of other nasty illnesses.

In the years of the dead Aral Sea, cancer rates around Karakalpakstan have shot to 25

times the world average.

Those who escape cancer are felled by respiratory diseases, immune system disorders, and antibiotic-resistant

tuberculosis.

In short, the air around the Aral Sea is toxic to breathe.

And even those who escape these deadly dust storms suffer.

So many chemicals have been dumped into the area, sunk to the bottom of the waters long

ago, that every part of the food chain has become contaminated.

If you want a single, depressing statistic to sum up the danger of living in this remote

corner of the world, you should know that infant mortality rates here are some of the

highest on Earth - growing steadily since the ‘70s even as they drop in the rest of

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All in all, it’s a disaster area.

A place inimical to human life.

And it gets worse.

When the Sea vanished, the effect on the local climate was beyond comprehension.

From somewhere that experienced relatively mild weather, the Aral Depression has become

somewhere that the weather Gods seem to have taken a personal dislike to.

Nowadays, temperatures swinging wildly between -40C and plus 40C are not uncommon, blasting

and burning this once-fertile land into a lifeless desert.

It this hostile world, one of the few things that seems capable of surviving is the Bubonic

Plague, which occasionally causes minor outbreaks.

While we’re not definitely tying the ongoing existence of the Black Death in the Aral Sea

region to the abandoned Soviet bioweapons lab working on the plague right nearby, we

are saying it’s a spooky coincidence.

And that, really, is the Aral Sea today.

A forgotten, toxic world festering in Central Asia, where all that remains of a once-great

lake are devastated towns and sick and penniless people.

According to scientists, the chances of the Uzbek East Sea ever replenishing in our lifetimes

are vanishingly remote.

The Aral Sea, it seems, is dead.

At least, in Uzbekistan it is.

Earlier, we mentioned that when the Aral Sea first divided, the North Sea wound up in Kazakhstan,

and the south in Uzbekistan.

While the unfolding disaster has continued unabated in Uzbekistan, the same cannot be

said for its northern neighbor.

Unlikely as it seems, our video today isn’t just a story of environmental degradation

and despair, although there has been plenty of that.

It’s also a story of hope.

Time for us to venture upwards at last to the North Aral Sea, where the decades of destruction

haven’t just been stopped.

They’ve been actively reversed.

Hope Springs Eternal If you’d surveyed the North Aral Sea in

1994, chances are you’d have predicted a complete collapse in the next few years.

At that point, the North Aral Sea was drying even faster than the South Aral Sea.

And a meeting that year between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and

Kyrgyzstan on preserving the two rivers feeding it had amounted to nothing.

But while things would get worse over the next decade, they would also soon start to

get better.

In the early 2000s, Kazakhstan presented the World Bank with a plan for combating the North

Aral Sea’s decline.

With the Sea’s catastrophic death headline news at the time, the World Bank handed over

$87m, likely expecting it would help slow the decline and nothing more.

But, to everyone’s surprise, the Kazakhs instead managed to save their sea.

The first step was to completely sever the North Aral Sea from the South.

Until the mid-2000s, a narrow channel ran between the two, filtering water down from

Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.

The Kazakh government decided that, rather than let both seas die, they’d sacrifice

one to save the other.

A vast dyke known as the Kokaral dam was built across the channel, trapping the North Sea’s

waters in Kazakhstan.

At the same time, a massive cleanup operation was launched along the Syr Darya River - the

same river Alexander the Great had stood beside, many centuries before.

When the work was completed in 2005, scientists thought it might take ten years to replenish

the North Aral Sea.

To everyone’s shock, the water level rose 3.3m in seven months.

As the North Aral Sea slowly refilled, its salinity levels began to drop.

Shores that had been salt-swept desert sank once more beneath the waves.

The waters got closer and closer again to the old fishing villages.

As the 2010s got underway, the Kazakh government decided to try reintroducing fish that had

died when the salinity levels went through the roof.

Not only did the fish survive.

They thrived.

Around the same time that the East Aral Sea was vanishing from existence, the North Aral

Sea reopened to fishermen.

Villagers who’d last caught fish in the 1980s returned to the water for the first

time in decades.

Sons of those fishermen who’d only ever known a life of grinding poverty had their

first experiences in a boat.

From a dead industry, fishing in the North Aral Sea once again became a viable way to

make a living.

You can see the effects most clearly in the town of Aralsk.

A one-time port city, Aralsk slumped into decline in the 1980s as the disaster took

hold.

In the depths of the crisis, this fishing town found itself stuck 150km from sea so

salty no fish could live in it.

By 2018 - the closest date we could get accurate figures for - the waters had returned to just

17km from the edge of town.

With the water came bream, pike-perch, and flounder.

From abandoning all hope, the older generation now truly believes they will live to see the

day the waters return to Aralsk’s docks.

But for that to happen, a few more miracles still have to take place.

While the North Aral Sea is today thriving, it has also grown back as far as it currently

can.

The Kokaral dam is too small to hold any more water back, with the result that billions

of cubic meters are now lost every year.

It’s estimated that merely adding another 4 meters’ height to the dyke would retain

enough water to allow the North Aral Sea to regrow by another 400 km2.

Enough to perhaps at last turn Aralsk back into a thriving port.

At time of writing, there was no deadline for this expansion.

The Kazakh government was giving nothing more than vague words of commitment to the project.

But hopefully it will happen soon.

Hopefully the elderly fishermen in Aralsk will be able to see their Sea once more, lapping

at the docks, as alive as they remember it once being.

If that happened… well.

It might just qualify as a miracle.

The story of the Aral Sea, then, is actually two separate stories: one about the Toxic

Soviet Sea turning into desert; and one about the Reborn Sea to its north.

But more than that, it’s a tale about choices.

About how we can look at habitat destruction and environmental degradation, and choose

to either turn a blind eye and accept the worst; or to dig our heels in, grit our teeth,

and do something about it - no matter what the cost.

The recovery of the North Aral Sea hasn’t been easy, and it’s still a long way from

where it once was.

But hope has returned, bringing with it a glimpse of a better future.

And if we can save a sea as contaminated and degraded as the Aral Sea…

Then maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for the rest of our world too.