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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

The Aral Sea

<<< Overview of Desertification Problems | Environmental Problems Index | Deforestation and Degradation of Forests >>>


In geological terms, the Aral Sea has had a short history dating from the late Pleistocene. Water levels have fluctuated by up to 36 metres throughout the Quaternary, largely due to natural tectonic, climatic, and geomorphological influences, but human use of water resources from the sea's two major tributaries, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, have also played a role during the last few thousand years. The most significant human intervention has come about in the second half of the 20th century as increasing volumes of water have been diverted to irrigate cropland. As a consequence, the water level declined by more than 15 metres between 1960 and 1990 when the Aral Sea became split into two separate, increasingly saline lakes. The physical consequences of the rise in irrigated area have been felt far beyond the shrinking Aral Sea and the deleterious physical consequences for its biodiversity, its former coastline and delta areas. Eleven new surface water bodies with capacities of 1 km3 and more have been created in the basin as reservoirs and drainage sinks. The irrigated areas themselves have suffered degradation in the form of salinization and waterlogging, while the excessive use of agrochemicals has had feedback effects on ecology and human health. In other parts of the Aral Sea basin, overintensive grazing, infrastructural development, and the overexploitation of woody vegetation, principally for fuel wood, have further contributed to desertification.

The Aral Sea basin has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the foremost examples of environmental degradation and change induced by human society in the 20th or any other century. Despite the recognition of this unenviable situation, efforts towards environmental rehabilitation have been hampered by the political and economic changes that have affected the area since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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