The Flipside of Economic Growth: The Aral Sea Case

Throughout Asia, rapid economic and population growth led to some serious environmental repercussions of deforestation, over-fishing, air pollution, overpopulation, and limited safe water supplies. Economic policies encouraged growth in some sectors, while giving little regard to sustainability of the exploited resources. The social costs in terms of health and economic efficiency are immediate, while the long-term costs of environmental rehabilitation are overwhelming.

In the following overview I would like to discuss one such example, the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is a lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Less than four decades ago, world’s fourths largest lake, nowadays a desert. This environmental disaster is considered to be the most dramatic example of a natural area destroyed by human activities.


In the 1960s, the former Soviet Union began implementing a series of irrigation projects to support the cultivation of cotton, viewed as “white gold”, and chosen for its ability to generate foreign exchange.

The two primary sources of fresh water for the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers were diverted, and for some years there was no flow into the northern portion of the Aral Sea. As the lake began shrinking in surface area and volume, shorelines receded, the salinity of the water increased, salt-sensitive fish populations declined, and the delta areas of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, once home to diverse flora and fauna, experienced rapid decline and destruction.

In addition to the loss of valuable fisheries, naval navigation, and fresh water, it has led to the changing of climate in the region, irrigated soils becoming deserts, deterioration of underground and surface water quality, reducing of available water for domestic and agricultural needs.


Change of the Aral Sea borders 1977-2006

The exposed sea bed contained a toxic, alkaline, dust; the result of fertilizer and pesticide run-off from agriculture. Wind produces toxic dust storms which put the health of present and future generations under threat.

aral sea - desert

Where once was a sea, now is a desert. 

The decline of the fishing industry and lack of alternative employment led to massive immigration from the region. People moved from towns and villages, now kilometers from the remainings of the sea, to other areas in hopes of finding a better life.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the problem of water management in the Aral Sea basin rests with five sovereign, Central Asian States: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. All the five countries rely heavily on water for economic progress, with downstream states, such as Uzbekistan using water for irrigation and the upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan using water to generate electricity.

This situation not only does not promote further development of the economy of the region, but has also caused damage with irreparable negative consequences. The Aral Sea drought became an international disaster.

Currently, many initiatives are existing to repair this situation, and one can only remain hopeful that some of the damages could be reversed.


Resent NASA footage of the Aral Sea. The black borders represent the original sea shore, prior to the 1960s’ irrigation projects. 


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