When I was a boy learning geography, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. Even then its salinity was so high that it was said to be impossible to drown in it. Beginning in the 1960s the Soviet government diverted most of the water from the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea for crop irrigation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The lake began to shrink, slowly at first, but by the 90s the rate had accelerated and not long after the turn of the century it had split into smaller lakes. By this time the salt content combined with toxic waste had become far too concentrated to support life and the fishing industry died.
The ecosystem of the Aral Sea and the river deltasfeeding into it has been nearly destroyed, not least because of the much higher salinity. The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. There is a high child mortality rate of 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death of 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.
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Photos from: Disasters of the Aral Sea