National Geographic : 2015 Jun
Aral Sea 121 China to Europe. These ancient populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other ethnicities prospered as farmers, fishermen, herders, mer- chants, and craftsmen. Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. be- came part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations. But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert. “Up until the early 1960s the system was fairly stable,” explained Philip Micklin, when I reached him by phone. As a geography profes- sor at Western Michigan University, Micklin spent his career studying water management issues in the former Soviet Union and made about 25 trips to Central Asia, starting in the early 1980s. Over the years he watched the Aral Sea’s demise firsthand. “ When they added even more irrigation canals in the 1960s, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “Suddenly the system was no longer sustainable. They knew what they were doing, but what they didn’t realize was the full range of the ecological consequences—and the rapidity with which the sea would vanish.” By 1987 the Aral’s water level had dropped drastically, splitting it into two bodies of water: a northern sea, which lies in Kazakhstan, and a larger southern sea lying within Karakalpak- stan. In 2002 the southern sea got so low that it too split into separate eastern and western seas. Last July the eastern sea dried up entirely. The only bright spot in this dire saga is the recent recovery of the northern sea. In 2005, with funding from the World Bank, the Kazakhs completed an eight-mile dam on the northern sea’s southern shore, creating a fully separate body of water, fed by the Syr Darya. Since the dam was built, the northern sea and its fishery have come back much more quickly than ex- pected. But the dam has cut off the southern sea from one of its crucial water sources, sealing its fate. “The saddest and most frustrating thing about the tragedy of the Aral Sea is that the Soviet officials at the Ministry of Water who designed the irrigation canals knew full well that they were dooming the Aral,” Kamalov says. From the 1920s through the 1960s, water 2006 2010 2014 Mark Synnott explored Oman rock climbing in the January 2014 issue. Carolyn Drake photo- graphed shamans for a December 2012 story.