In the 1960s, Soviet leaders believed the future lay in collective agrarianism, and they believed irrigating Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s arid steppes was their key to the future. They were wrong. Irrigation canals branching off from the Amu Darya (historically Oxus) river fed fields of Soviet cotton and wheat, but over time Central Asia’s longest river waned until a dam put an end to it, changing the Aral Sea in disastrous ways.
With its main tributary gone, the salty Central Asian sea—the fourth largest inland waterbody—was forced to rely solely on the Syr Darya, a smaller river emptying into the Aral Sea’s northern portion. The smaller river could not feed the Aral Sea on its own, and by the 1980s, the sea extended to a mere half of its original size. Soviet irrigation had left the region devastated, and it would only get worse. The significant water loss brought the salinity from 10 to 30 grams per liter—comparable to ocean water. In the 1980s, all the native fish species died, unable to adapt to the drastic and sudden change in salinity, and the region’s once vibrant fishing economy died too. To this day, rusted out boats can be seen laying on the dried up seabed.
Unfortunately, the tragedy does not end there. Up to 75,000 tons of poisonous chemicals and salt drift in the wind annually. Picked up from the dried seabed, these particles often make dangerous salt-storms in the region. The chemicals have been known to cause numerous health issues, and now these health issues are affecting entire populations. Entire cities and villages are being exposed to the various chemicals left over when the sea dried. Infant mortality is up to 110 deaths per 1000 births. To put this in perspective, the global infant mortality rate is 29 per 1000 births. Cases of cancer also rose drastically in this region, with liver cancer alone, doubling between 1981 and 1991. Anemia, stunted growth, and reduced fertility have also become prevalent, as fresh fish disappear from the market. Respiratory diseases from breathing in the toxins, dust, and salt are also rampant.
To make things worse, the Aral Sea was given no official government attention until the fall of the Soviet Union. Unwilling to admit a mistake, the Soviet government let the Aral Sea drain out, moved the fishing industry to the Caspian Sea, and ignored the problem for 30-odd years. Although many now see it as a lost cause, some organizations are trying to help— or at the very least, draw attention to the issue.
One short term solution to the problem has been offered by the Uzbek company, Uzneftegazdobycha— a company that’s willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to drill under the dried seabed to harvest the hydrocarbons there. This, however good for the short term economic health of the region, would further the issue in the long run by removing water from the area.
Although by no means non-governmental, the most successful organization at ameliorating the issue is the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). Bent on creating a better shared dialogue between central Asian countries, the IFAS was developed to both combat the issues of the Aral Sea and prevent anything like it from ever happening again. To that note, the Uzbek government has been planting thousands of saxaul trees in the Uzbek portion of the dried seabed. Although an admission that the Aral Sea will never be the way it once was, the Uzbek plan is not a bad one. Saxaul trees have been known to fix up to 10 tons of soil, preventing the salt and chemicals from entering the atmosphere and harming people. The current rate of planting, however, is painstakingly slow. Some estimate it would take 150 years to finish.
Perhaps the WeAreWater Foundation could help though. Known for partnering with larger NGOs in regard to water issues, the foundation could very well provide additional assistance in the matter. Contributing to World Bank and UN efforts, NGOs like this one are perhaps the best bet at solving the issue.