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Number 69, 1995
by Joshua Calder and Jim Lee

ARALSEA: Aral Sea and Defense Issues
Case Background
Environment Aspect
Conflict Aspect
Environment Conflict Overlap
Related Information


1. Abstract

The destruction of the Aral Sea ecosystem has been sudden and severe. Beginning in the 1960s, agricultural demands have deprived this large Central Asian salt lake of enough water to sustain itself, and it has shrunk rapidly. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian states use this water to grow cotton and other export crops, in the face of widespread environmental consequences, including fisheries loss, water and soil contamination, and dangerous levels of polluted airborne sediments. It is generally agreed that the current situation is unsustainable, but the poverty and export dependency of the Central Asian states have prevented real action, and the sea continues to shrink.

2. Description

It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded. Humans have made use of the waters of the Aral basin for thousands of years, borrowing from its two major rivers: the Amu Darya, which flows into the Aral Sea from the south; and the Syr Darya, which reaches the sea at its north end. As the twentieth century began, irrigated agriculture in the basin was still being conducted at a sustainable level.

After the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, this began to change. Traditional agricultural practices were destroyed by collectivization, and Soviet planners sought products that could be exported for hard currency. They placed cotton high on their list, calling it `white gold,' and the Soviet Union became a net exporter of cotton in 1937. Change accelerated in the 1950s, as Central Asian irrigated agriculture was expanded and mechanized. The Kara Kum Canal opened in 1956, diverting large amounts of water from the Amu Darya into the desert of Turkmenistan, and millions of hectares of land came under irrigation after 1960.

A crucial juncture had been reached, and after 1960 the level of the Aral Sea began to drop, while diversion of water continued to increase. While the sea had been receiving about fifty cubic kilometers of water per year in 1965, by the early 1980s this had fallen to zero.

As the Aral shrank, its salinity increased, and by 1977 the formerly large fish catch had declined by over seventy-five percent. By the early 1980s, commercially useful fish had been eliminated, shutting down an industry that had employed 60,000. The declining sea level lowered the water table in the region, destroying many oases near its shores.

The devotion to irrigated agriculture had other direct effects as well. Much ecologically sensitive land in the river deltas was converted to cropland, and pesticide use was heavy throughout the Aral basin, resulting in heavy contaminant concentrations in the sea. Overirrigation caused salt buildup in many agricultural areas.

By the beginning of the 1990s, the surface area of the Aral had shrunk by nearly half, and the volume was down by seventy-five percent. A host of secondary effects began to appear.

Regional climate became more continental, shortening the growing season and causing some farmers to switch from cotton to rice, which demanded even more diverted water. The exposed area of former seabed was now over 28,000 square kilometers, from which winds picked up an estimated 43 million tons of sediments laced with salts and pesticides, with devastating health consequences for surrounding regions. These contaminated Aral dust storms have been reported as far away as the Arctic and Pakistan. Respiratory illnesses were particularly common, and throat cancers burgeoned. Regional vegetation loss may have increased albedo, possible reducing precipitation.

These developing problems had not gone unnoticed during the Soviet era. The solution devised was characteristic of Soviet planners: the waters of Siberia's Ob River were to be diverted southward, so that they would flow to Central Asia rather than the Arctic. Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost put an end to this scheme, as the Soviet populace became aware of ecological disasters, and began to have the freedom to petition and protest.

In 1988, the Soviet Central Committee decreed that cotton growing was to be reduced, so that the Aral Sea could receive water in gradually increasing amounts through 2005. There was some reduction in water diversion as a result.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 ended any such central authority; the Aral crisis was now in the hands of the five Central Asian nations.

They signed an agreement in 1992 pledging efforts toward Aral rehabilitation, but little action has been taken. Another meeting, in January 1994, resulted in offers to reduce water consumption, and promises of money for an Aral fund.

For the present, the Aral continues to shrink, and may soon be lifeless. Its future prospects are uncertain. The sea could be stabilized with improvements in the efficiency of irrigation, but would remain incapable of supporting most fauna, and the current problems of pollution and lost habitat would go unaddressed. Substantial but feasible irrigation improvements, and some reduction in cropland, would allow partial restoration of the sea, though it would still be incapable of supporting its former fisheries.

Full restoration would require wholesale regional changes, such as a shift away from agriculture. Urbanization, combined with large revenues from oil and gas projects, might facilitate such a shift. Genetically engineered crops in need of less water might also provide a solution in the next few decades.

Other agricultural products, chiefly rice, are also grown with water diverted from Aral feeders. As changing climate reduces the growing season, rice has been replacing cotton as the crop of choice around the southern end of the lake.

3. Duration: 1970s to now

The Central Asian countries have made agreements concerning the Aral. A 1992 document called for insuring delivery of water to the sea and its deltas. In 1994, the countries pledged to give one percent of their GNPs to an Aral Sea fund, and agreed to use less irrigation water. However, little action appears to have been taken. For instance, it was reported in late 1994 that no money had so far reached the Aral fund.

4. Location


Asia Mideast


The Aral Sea is shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but water conservation would also affect Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

5. Actors: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Water

The waters diverted from the Aral support agriculture worth billions of dollars, employing millions of people. Uzbekistan's chief crop is cotton, which in 1991 made up 33.6% of total exports, and is now the country's leading hard-currency earner. In 1991, 43.2% of the total value of the country's net material product was agricultural. In 1990-1992, 17% of the labor force was engaged in agriculture.

Turkmenistan obtained 46.4% of its net material product by value through agriculture in 1991. Agriculture constituted 33.9% of Kazakhstan's net material product that year. Twenty percent of the labor force was employed in agriculture in the period 1990- 1992.

The agricultural industries of Central Asia are able to significantly reduce costs by nearly complete externalization of environmental costs. Were these costs to be internalized, output would be considerably reduced.

Central Asia is at the same latitude as Maine: the area around the Aral is too far north for optimal cotton production. Without the massive government support inherited from Soviet planning, the region might not be a natural producer of cotton on the world market.

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites: Soviet Union and Uzbekistan

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

There are however some internal dimesnions t the issue. The Karakalpaks are an ethnically distinct people in northwest Uzbekistan, whose region is centered around the Amu Darya delta at the south end of the Aral. They have been hard-hit by the ecological disaster, and "accuse the Uzbek government in Tashkent of taking no interest in their problems." The Karakalpak republic proclaimed its sovereignty in 1990, and is reportedly constructing its own water management system, to avoid being subject to decisions by the central government.

10. Level of Conflict: Low

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram The problem is general habitat loss, brought on by unsustainable usage of water in the Aral basin, resulting in the gradual disappearance of the sea. Most animal life in the Aral died as the sea's volume declined from 1,075 cubic kilometers with a salinity of 10 grams per liter, to only 54 cubic kilometers with more than ten times that salinity. Wetlands along the shore disappeared as the lake receded, and falling water tables destroyed oases.

Additional habitat was lost as river water was diverted from delta wetlands, which were also being converted into cropland. Plant and animal populations shifted, with environmental changes favoring species better adapted to drought and salinity. Further strain was placed on the environment by the onset of a more continental climate in the region, induced by the loss of the Aral's moderating influence.

There are secondary sink problems, which include loss of cropland to accumulating salts, and air and water pollution. Excessive irrigation has caused salt accumulation in soil throughout the Aral basin, causing declining harvests. Between 1968 and 1985, sixty percent of the cropland in the Amu Darya delta was affected by salinity.

The shrinking of the sea has exposed almost 30,000 square kilometers of lake bed, which is so filled with salts and chemicals that it is toxic to plants. Millions of tons of such sediments are lifted from the lakebed by winds, damaging plants, crops, and human health. In some areas, airborne salt accumulates at a rate of four tons per hectare per year.

Increasing salinity became intolerable for various kinds of fish beginning in the 1970s, and some species unique to the Aral Sea are now extinct. Others are found elsewhere, and could be reintroduced if the lake were sufficiently restored. Destruction of isolated oases undoubtedly eliminated some unique species. Other species are being driven from the area by habitat loss, but are not in danger of extinction.

Humans are suffering health impacts, from pesticide- contaminated and saline water, and from windblown sediments containing salts and chemicals. Anaemia and infant mortality are reported to have risen. There are heightened rates of throat cancer, as well as respiratory and eye diseases. Deteriorating conditions have also been tied to increases in leukemia and liver and kidney diseases.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region

14. Outcome of Dispute: No Resolution

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

ICE Cases


16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Economist, 15 October 1994. "No More Caviar," 38, 43.

Ellis, William S.  "A Soviet Sea Lies Dying."  National

     Geographic 177 (February 1990): 72-93.

Gleason, Gregory.  "Uzbekistan: From Statehood to Nationhood?"

     In Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States,

     ed. Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras, 331-360.  Cambridge:

     Cambridge University Press, 1993.  

Kuznetsov, N. T.  "Geographical and Ecological Aspects of 

     Aral Sea Hydrological Functions."  Post-Soviet Geography

     33 (May 1992): 324-331.

Micklin, Philip P.  "The Aral Crisis: Introduction to the Special

     Issue."  Post-Soviet Geography 33 (May 1992): 269-282. 

Nature, 20 January 1994. "Asian Republics Agree on Joint 

     Rescue Plan to Save the Aral Sea," 206.

New Scientist, 22 January 1994. "Neighbors Sign Deal to Save

     Aral Sea," 10.

Smith, David R.  "Change and Variability in Climate and Ecosystem

     Decline in Aral Sea Basin Deltas."  Post-Soviet Geography

     35 (March 1994): 142-165.

December, 2000