The Disappearing Aral Sea

Over one hundred ships are mysteriously abandoned in this desert in central Asia. You rub your eyes, but it’s not an optical illusion; no water as far as the eye can see. This desert is like any other, aside from the empty landlocked fishing ports, rusted ships frozen in sand, and former island with abandoned biological weapon facility.

Actually, fifty years ago this “desert” wasn’t a desert at all. It was the fourth-largest lake in the world and supported a fishing industry that produced 50,000 tons of catch and fed over 100,000 people across nine countries. But after five decades of abuse, the ecosystem collapsed and the water retreated. Entire cities watched their economies vanish as the ships ran aground. Then the residents fled.

Today the Aral Sea has lost 85% of its volume. In its place: A toxic and unforgiving new desert.


In part one of a two-part series, we travel to the Aral Sea, a landlocked body of water which straddles the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan:


Soviet Influence

The Aral Sea is a five and a half million year-old closed-drainage basin system (known as an endorheic basin), meaning it contains no natural outflows to other bodies of water.

Joseph Stalin

Its name signifies a “sea of islands,” a reference to the fifteen hundred islets that once dotted the Aral’s surface. This changed in the 1960s when the Soviet government’s diversions of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers sapped the sea of its inflows.

Two projects are generally blamed: Joseph Stalin‘sGreat Plan to Transform Nature” (1948 until mid-1950s), and Nikita Khrushchev‘sVirgin Lands Campaign” (Освое́ние целины́, 1954-1960).

Nikita Khrushchev

The plans were to dig irrigation canals from Uzbekistan through Turkmenistan, fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, to sustain large-scale agriculture in the desert. Motivating factors were greed and survival; the former driven by cotton prices, the latter borne out of famine and a starving population.

The winners were the farmers, who would go on to become worldwide leaders in cotton production (aka “white gold”). By 1988 Uzbekistan had become the world’s largest exporter of the fluffy fiber. The losers were the existing natural ecosystems supporting thousands of animals and fish, and a regional sea-based economy that supported over 100,000 people across two countries.

the water diverted by canals brings life to the desert


Irrigation Canals

Over a span of fifty years two major canals were constructed: The Main Turkmen Canal and the Karakum (Qaraqum) Canal (pictured at right).

The Main Turkmen project began in the late 1930s and concluded in 1953 with the death of Joseph Stalin. It initially diverted approximately 25% of the Amu Darya’s waters southwest to the Caspian coastal city of Krasnovodsk – however this amount increased as farming expanded across the Karakum.

Over 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and 80 reservoirs fed new fields of cotton and wheat across the steppe. But the system was leaky and inefficient, and after several decades the Amu Darya had lost enough flow it no longer reached the Aral Sea. Today the Amu Darya ends over 100 miles (161 km) away, just South of the Porlatau settlement. (map)

Early engineering limitations decimated irrigation efficiency; 50% of the Main Turkmen’s diverted water escaped the canal before reaching its destination.

The Karakum Canal is one of the largest in the world, stretching 854 miles (1,375 km) long. It took workers over thirty years to build (from 1954 until 1988), and begins farther south, running across the Karakum Desert.

Water resource use in the Aral Basin.
Water resource use in the Aral Basin (courtesy

As the canal projects progressed, more water was diverted.

In 1960 the rate of water being diverted reached between 4.8 and 14.4 cubic miles (20 and 60 km3) per year, the threshold at which net outflows eclipsed net inflows.

For the first time in its history, the Aral Sea began to shrink.



Desiccation of the Aral Sea

Welkom in Moynaq, eens een van de grootste vissersplaatsen aan het AralmeerAs the water level fell, the salinity and toxicity increased. After two decades the lake had fallen over 52 feet (16 m), and shorelines receded between 30 and 60 miles (48-96 km).

Several hundred year-old fishing economies (such as Mo’ynoq – see below) were now stranded in a new and infertile desert, miles away from water. With the departure of the water, residents lost more than their livelihood.

Countless hulking oxidized ships now rot in banks of sand. Looters and scavengers relieved the vessels of anything with value long before they were left to rot.

The ships still faithfully serve the people of the desert steppe, even in decay. However instead of transporting fish and materials, now they offer shelter as overnight camps for nomadic scavengers and regional tradesmen on caravan routes.


Muynak-airport_cropCASE STUDY: Mo’ynoq (Muynak/Moynaq/Muinak/Muinok/Мўйноқ/Муйнак) is a (mostly) deserted city along the former southern coast of the Aral Sea.

It once boasted a population of 15,000, its industry almost entirely driven by fishing of the South Aral Sea. Receding waters destroyed the town’s economy and population, leaving Mo’ynoq dilapidated and vacant.

The town’s airport (UTNM) once exported the town’s fish and served hundreds of passengers a week, but it closed after the cannery closed and the last air travelers purchased one-way tickets. (above right, map)

The Mo’ynoq Cannery (below, map) was built in 1933 and was once one of the U.S.S.R.’s major canneries employing over 1,000. In 1958 it produced 21.5 million cans of food, distributed throughout the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s the fish processing part of the plant stopped functioning.

Today it stands empty; no water, no fish.

Muynak-cannery-2 Muynak-cannery Muynak-cannery-4 Muynak-cannery-3Muynak-cannery-5(click thumbnails to enlarge)


Extension Intervention

Aralsk-canal-2When Aral harbors lost their coastlines, residents scrambled to keep their economies afloat.

The first solution was to dig canals from the towns’ harbors to the sea, an enormous project for area settlements and their limited sources.

[ At right: Aerial photo of Aralsk shows this canal (highlighted in blue) reaching southwest toward the retreating waters of the North Aral. (view on map) ]

The process was expensive and labor intensive, but it extended the lifespan of Aral-based industry. Unfortunately, it only delayed the inevitable for a few years. The rate at which the water retreated grew too fast and workers couldn’t dig the canals fast enough.

Eventually, they waived the white flag and abandoned the canal extension project.

Man-made canals extended the life of Aral ports… for awhile.

[ Map exploration: Remains of abandoned canal extension. And another. We can keep going. ]


Environmental Disaster

The result has been called by some as one of the planet’s “worst environmental disasters.” Without the presence of the sea, nothing moderates the weather or buffers the former coastal towns from the elements.

Climate change has left the region with hotter summers and colder winters. Wind storms kick up fouled dust from the former seabed, now tainted with chemicals and pesticides from agricultural runoff. Strong winds move poisonous dust clouds across the former ports, giving the few residents who stayed behind acute and chronic illnesses.

An entire fishing industry was forced to find other employment and sources of food, but with no industry, a lack of water, and polluted soil – farming is not an option.


[ Map exploration: See ships stranded in what used to be the Aral Sea.

They are all over the place. Seriously. ]


From 1961 to 1970 the water level fell an average of 7.9 inches (20 cm) per year; from 1971 until 1980 the rate tripled to 20-24 inches (50-60 cm) per year. In the 1980s the rate of decline reached 31-35 inches (80-90 cm) per year.

By 1987 the water level of the Aral had fallen enough to split the sea into two bodies of water: The North Aral Sea and the larger South Aral Sea.

[ From 1960 to 1998 the amount of water re-routed for irrigation doubled, as did cotton production. During this time, the Aral’s surface area & volume shrank by 60% & 80%. ]


Aral Sea Over Time



In March of 2000 UNESCO presented “Water-Related Vision for the Aral Sea Basin for the Year 2025” at the second World Water Forum, but the document was unrealistic in its goals and failed to consider the effects on the Uzbek people.

[ By 2004 the Aral Sea’s surface area had fallen to 6,630 square miles (17,160 km2), just 25% of its original size. A nearly five-fold increase in salinity had killed most of its natural flora and fauna. ]

  (click thumbnails to enlarge)

The South Aral Sea did not fare as well, having split into three parts by 2007: The South Aral Western Basin, the South Aral Eastern Basin, and Barsakelmes Lake, equidistant between the North and South Aral Seas.

The southeastern basin was the first to dry up in 2009, while the southwestern basin retreated to a narrow strip along the far west former coastline of the Aral Sea.


Sometimes-Interesting Aral Sea Map

(click name below for link to Google Maps)

South Aral Western Basin | South Aral Eastern Basin | Barsakelmes Lake | North Aral Sea




aral-ships-10The disappearance of the Aral Sea was a surprise to most but the Soviet Union. Not only was the U.S.S.R. aware of the potential problems early – it encouraged a culture of stifling those who dare contradict existing plans.

[ In 2008, the maximum depth of the North Aral Sea was 138 feet (42 m) ]

In 1964 an engineer who had worked on the canal program acknowledged the lake’s fate was no secret to those involved in its construction:

“It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

– Aleksandr Asarin, Russian Hydroproject Institute

Publicly the Soviet Union fostered a different attitude toward the crisis, with some Russian experts considering the drying of the Aral Sea to be “nature’s error.” As one engineer declared in 1968:

“it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”

[ Satellite images taken by NASA in August 2014 have revealed that for the first time ever, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea had completely dried out. ]

photo below courtesy



Over the years various attempts have been made to slow the desertification of the Aral Sea. In the 1960s the Northern River Reversal was a large-scale engineering effort carried out to redirect northern river flows inland.

Skyrocketing costs and increasingly negative public sentiment toward the plan eventually forced authorities to cancel the project, which was abandoned in 1986.

[ At right: Stranded Aral Ships courtesy Marcin Plonka ]

Other solutions such as improving the quality of the irrigation canals, the installation of desalination plants, and installing additional dams have been considered. Proposals not well-received included the charging of farmers for use of river water and the compulsory order of switching to less thirsty crops.

ICWCWhen Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it formally assumed authority and responsibility for the southern half of the former Aral Sea.

[ Map exploration: Desertification crippled industry. In Aralsk, entire districts are abandoned. ]

Within months the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia (ICWC) was formed (at left), and on February 18th, 1992, five countries united in an attempt to solve the economic and environmental problems surrounding the Aral Sea. Those involved: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

On March 23rd, 1993 the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) was launched to raise funds for projects under the Aral Sea Basin Program banner. To this end, in January of 1994 the five countries each pledged to direct one percent of their annual budgets toward Aral Sea recovery programs. Unfortunately the riparian countries did not make the pledged contributions, and the project had to be scaled back.

The Kok-Aral dam

From 1997 to 2005, the World Bank helped build the North Aral Sea Project, an ambitious Aral restoration effort which included the 8 mile-long (12.9 km) Kok-Aral Dam across the Berg Strait. (pictured above)

Also known as the Dike Kokaral, the dam allowed for the re-accumulation of water into the North Aral Sea and helped to restore the regional ecosystems. The first phase was completed in 2008, and before long there were tangible results showing the reversals of negative trends.

The North Aral Sea’s surface increased from 980 square miles (2,550 km2) in 2003 to 1,300 square miles (3,300 km2) in 2008. The sea’s depth increased from 98 feet (30m) in 2003 to 138 feet (42m) in 2008.”

– Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry


North Aral Recovery

By 2010 the North Aral Sea Project restoration efforts paid off; the water level not only stopped declining, it had begun to rise. The following year witnessed a decrease in North Aral salinity for the first time in decades, and the water level rose by two meters.

[ Above: Distance South Aral Sea retreated in two months. ]

Fish returned in significant numbers, and the corollary micro-climate changes brought the long-absent rain clouds back to parts of the region. The same could not be said for the South Aral, long gone and now a rusting ship graveyard.

aral-sea-recede aral-sea-bed Aral-harbor(click thumbnails to enlarge)


And what of the island with biological weapon testing facility? Click here for Part II of the Aral Sea feature.

photo below courtesy Ismael Alonso


Fancy abandoned ships? Related S-I content:

(mouse-over for title, click to jump to post)

nouadhibo mauritania ***


  1. Oh god!!! from where do you get the articles from ???? Hats off to you for spending much time and providing information to us.
    Regarding the Aral sea, another example of man’s greed…

    • Why thank you! Believe it or not most of the articles I post (I’d say easily over 90%) are suggestions and tips from readers. I keep a list of suggestions from everyone and I’ll scan the list for the next story idea.

      Sometimes the stories are driven by a collaboration with a photographer. Sometimes I get good suggestions but can’t feature them because I can’t find good images or source information.

      I like to try and focus on things that haven’t been already covered exhaustively – or at least where Wikipedia doesn’t have the entire story. If the topic is harder to research, I enjoy this more & the final product is usually better.

      But you guys always have fantastic suggestions, I just wish I had the time to feature them all.

  2. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture as a college freshman in 2000 by a professor that had spent extensive time in Uzbekistan trying to help educate the local farmers and politicians about different farming methods and trying to save the sea. It was fascinating and sad. The soviets had absolutely ruined several local cultures that were based off of fishing and the sea just to grow more and more cotton and wheat. I’m from Mississippi and cotton is a high impact crop. It takes a lot of water, fertilizer, and chemicals to make a good stand. This area was never meant to grow that kind of crop. It was a waste and folly to even try. At least they are trying to reverse it in some part, even if it is a little too late.

    • Wow, well you are quite familiar with the underlying issue then. I didn’t realize how thirsty cotton was as a crop until I researched this article. I agree though, trying to grow it in the steppe seems like a square peg/round hole situation. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Right here in America at California’s Salton Sea is a similar disaster, created by man. Sometimes Interesting did a story on the Salton Sea in 2012. The “sea” was created in the early 1900s when “brilliant” engineers decided to cut canals into the Colorado River bank which led to uncontrolled flows at high water times into a natural desert bowl south east of Palm Springs.
    During the 50s and 60s investors built everything from houses to yacht clubs and they thought they had found their golden goose. Over time man’s folly turned on them badly. From the north areas of Mecca and Indio and from the south the Imperial Valley farm chemicals found their way into this bowl of toxic sludge. The water evaporates and the salinity grows worse each year. Its now a smelly, filthy, horrible place where everything dies. The most poignant scenes are those of the decaying carcasses of everything from huge drag lines to abandon business. They are being absorbed back into the earth, slowly eaten by the salt. The fish have died by the million and that in turn is killing the other animals that feed upon them. Sick and dying fish eaten by pelicans and other unfortunate creatures are killed by an array of organisms and toxins. Its now the most disgusting mess I’ve ever seen.
    There have been reclamation plans discussed but it is doubtful anything will ever save this “sea”. The cost would be in the billions if it could be done at all. Its doubtful tax payers would be willing to pay the bill. Its hard to believe this disaster exists less than 100 miles from Palm Springs.
    I’m sure the only possible and now sane outcome is to let nature have it back, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, mother earth will reclaim her elements from which they came.
    It’s interesting to Google Salton Sea, images, you’ll be amazed.

    • Hey Larry, good to see you. Thanks for the bump on Salton Sea, funny you mention it because I was tipped off to this article just the other day:

      Repeats what you said but talks about the Imperial Irrigation District not living up to its end of the bargain. Sad situation agreed, not that dissimilar from the Aral in result for sure.

      I’m genuinely surprised how few people are aware of the Salton Sea and this issue with the Aral Sea (myself included before the articles). Awareness for these issues is generally pretty poor.

      Happy Thanksgiving Larry. 🙂

  4. I had heard a bit about the Aral, but of course, no one goes as in depth as you do. Of course, knowing my proclivities, I’m very eager to see part 2! Just as you did the Gary series, I’m sure you could come up with an entire volume on the abandonments, mismanagements, and various malfeasences of the former USSR and its Politburo. Keep the posts coming.

    • Thanks TR! I notice I seem to get a little more in depth every time, and it does create a dilemma for me. I’m not trying to write novels here, but sometimes I uncover so much scattered information, it’s tempting to put it all in one place. Next thing I know, I’m at 5,000 words. Ha! I’ll find the happy medium. Cheers buddy.

  5. Oh, and a bit that really demonstrates what your talking about: if you click on the link to the map of the abandoned district in Aralsk, then follow the ill fated canal southwest, you come to a an overlap in satellite imagery where the north part of the image has water in it, and the south half doesn’t!

    • Funny you caught that, believe it or not that was a huge confusing factor for me during the research of the article. I know map services sometimes use older images, but when you’re analyzing something that is shrinking and they mix it up like that… Well, let’s just say I had to create a physical timeline on a piece of paper to keep track of the years and progress. Very confusing, especially when you’re pulling the data from two dozen sources and it doesn’t always match up.

  6. You know this piece left me thinking of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. It’s amazing how no one ever thinks about the consequences or if they do, realky don’t care. The water wars in New Mexico now are a good example. Great piece.

      • They’ve re-opened the river in natural cycles. Much of the Grand Canyon’s Eco-system was being destroyed by the damming of the river. Chalk one up for environmentalists.

        • I thought Roosevelt’s decision to establish the National Park System was one of the better legislative things this country has ever done. I can’t imagine a government of any country doing something similar (on that scale) now with how much money drives decision making today.

  7. Wow! That is so shocking. I open my atlas from when I was in school and I just cannot believe that the big lake called the Aral Sea isn’t there anymore (at least definitely not in the shape it is presented). One may expect to see variations in state borders, but I never thought that the physical map can suffer changes.
    Congrats on another facinating story and looking fw part 2.

    • Hey Andrei, good to see you buddy. Right there with you on the school atlas thing, I had always thought the Aral was still there.

      But we had these old globes in our classrooms (I think they showed the Roman Empire), so in retrospect I guess I’m not surprised.

  8. We have much better knowledge nowadays and still can’t seem to live and work in harmony with the environment around us. It’s a very perverse way to operate as most of us don’t treat our houses, homes and flats like that – we want them to in good health and still standing years down the line. Sorry for the eco-rant – another fascinating post.

    • Thanks Alex, no apologies needed (I actually agree, for what it’s worth). I’m no expert but it seems to come down to greed or power a lot of the time. A flaw we’ll have as long as we’re here on this planet, I suspect. Good to see you, loved that abandoned warehouse piece with all the graffiti, by the way. 🙂

  9. I’m currently reading Kapuscinski’s ‘Imperium’ which has an essay on the Aral sea as it was around 1990.
    I googled Aral Sea and arrived here.
    Scanning the comments I find much the same thing has also been done in Colorado.

    Can I now add to the list the Murray Darling basin in Australia?
    We have drawn more water than goes in for many years and a report on how we should repair it was publicly burned in one of the towns that were dying as a consequence. It basically recommended more water for the environment and less for agriculture. In the decade since nothing much has changed.

    It astonishes me that you can substitute western democracy for Soviet communism and still end up in much the same place. Greed and stupidity seem to trump all.

    Ross Hughes, Queensland, Australia

  10. Really interesting article!
    The issue was recently highlighted by Nas Daily in a couple of videos, which has brought a lot of attention to this and other world issues.

    I’m really glad to read/see that efforts are now being made to correct this and salvage the sea…

    I’m an architectural technologist with a specialisation in Sustainability. I also work in health care. (a mix I know) but my biggest trait is I am an annoying optimist. I truly believe that as much as humans are the cause of SO many problems, they can also be the cause of so many solutions! 😀

    The mistakes of the past need not remain mistakes. We have the ability and technology to fix so much!

    And just like young Boyan Slat who took on cleaning plastic out of the ocean when everyone else (experts) told him it was impossible, I believe that even this dead sea can be revived.

    Water is needed for both food and for ecosystem.
    I believe that it can be balanced with the right work, tech, team, and effort. (New irrigation systems, solar power, water-making-tech, desalination/filtration etc). And then with the right management the post recovery economies can thrive… Its not a quick solution… but it is doable in my optimist opinion!

    Id love to be part of such projects. 🙂 Ready to get my hands dirty and build/fix/do things to improve the future…

    Can you imagine swimming in a sea you helped restore?! That’s a legacy to leave the kids! 😀

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