Stealing The Aral Sea

How Fifty Years of Soviet Cotton Production Drained a Massive Inland Ocean

Fifty years ago, the Aral Sea was not a sea at all, but a massive inland ocean that once held the title of the fourth-largest lake in the world. Located in Central Asia between the post-Soviet nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, its brackish waters once spanned more than 67,000 square kilometers and were once home to more than 1,000 islands, 34 species of fish and a thriving fishing community, surviving against all odds in one of the world’s driest regions.

Today, the Aral Sea is mostly a desert. In the 1920’s, one of the Soviet Union’s top climatologists declared the massive saltwater lake a “mistake of nature,” condemning it to a tragic fate that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently called “one of the planet’s most shocking environmental disasters.” Here’s what happened.


The U.S.S.R decides to undertake a massive hydrologic engineering project in what is now known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Their plan? To artificially create a “breadbasket” in the middle of a desert, safe from possible invasion from the West. Dams, canals and irrigation ditches are built around the two main rivers feeding into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, many of which were dug by hand by folks also involved in the Soviet fishing and muskrat pelt industries.

In the 1960s, the Aral Sea supports the livelihoods of roughly 60,000 fisherman, and is providing one-quarter of the Soviet Union’s total fish catch. Its waters span an area 426 km long and 284 km wide. Hundreds of cotton farms, rice paddies, and cereal grain fields, green with newly extracted freshwater from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers begin to dot the new countryside.


Fisheries and the communities that depend on them begin to collapse in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as changes in the Aral Sea’s ecology begin to cause a major die-off in the fish population. Before Soviet water diversion projects began, the inland ocean received 50 cubic km of freshwater every year. That number has now fallen to zero.

Between 1961 and 1970, the Aral Sea’s level began fall an average of 20 cm per year. By the 1980’s, the draining intensified, with waters beginning to drop at a rate of up to 90 cm per year. In 1987, the Aral Sea divides into two separate basins. However, the Soviet Union’s plan to turn the arid region into a fertile, green oasis seems to be a success. One year later, Uzbekistan becomes the world’s largest supplier of cotton.


The waters of the Aral Sea are becoming increasingly salty. Its surrounding rivers are polluted with fertilizers and pesticides. In places where the lake once was, local populations are fleeing due a massive uptick in the incidences of diseases like anemia, cancer, allergies, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis. There has also been a noticeable affect on the region’s climate. Hotter summers and colder winters mean a shorter growing season, which causes many local farmers to switch over from cotton to rice, which requires even more water.

By summer 2003, the South Aral Sea further divides into eastern and western basins. The inland ocean is now just 25 percent of its original size. Up North, the Kazakhstan government begins a last-ditch effort to “save” the Aral Sea, building a dam between the North and Southern parts of the basin. This is essentially a death sentence for the South Aral, which is judged to be “beyond saving.”


Blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, is declared a major public health hazard across the former Aral Sea basin. The storms degrade surrounding soil, requiring croplands to be flushed with larger and larger amounts of water. Sodium chloride, DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene and phosalone are now seeping into whatever is left of local cotton and rice crops.

In 2014, NASA publishes new photographs showing the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea, which used to be the center of the original ocean, has completely dried up. Uzbekistan shows no interest in abandoning the Amu Darya river as a source of water for its cotton farms, and has begun searching for oil on the drying South Aral seabed.

Today, the Aral Sea is just 10 percent of its original size. Ninety-five percent of nearby wetlands and reservoirs in the region are now deserts. The Eastern Sea in Uzbekistan is now called the Aralkum Desert. Its western portion has been reduced to a sliver, as sea level continues to drop nearly 80 cm per year.

However, thanks to restoration plans in Kazakhstan, the North Aral Sea has recently rebounded. Its waters have gone up 20 percent since 2004, and are now up to 42 meters above sea level. Several native fish species have returned to the inland ocean. In the South Aral, only brine shrimp survive.

Topographic and bathymetric visualization of the Aral Sea geography is approximate and exaggerated for illustrative clarity and is based on hand-edited 7.5 arc second GMTED2010 digital elevation models. Satellite imagery based on NASA Earth Observatory by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS). Water levels over time based on cartography by NordNordWest.

Reported by Casey Halter and designed by Evander Batson.

Featured photograph by Arian Zwegers.


  • lakes
  • geography
  • geoengineering
  • impact