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How to create an epic environmental disaster


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  • Suck out enough water and the well goes dry: The Aral Sea’s disappearance is a benchmark reminder that water choices have pay-to-play consequences.

The Aral Sea, once the size of Ireland, has almost vanished in an absolute environmental horror show. The Aral’s disappearance is a benchmark reminder that water choices have pay-to-play consequences: Suck out enough water and the well goes dry.

Once the fourth largest lake on Earth covering an area of 26,300 square miles, the Aral Sea has been choked since the 1960s to roughly 10 percent of its original size. Left behind is a scarred, parched plain — a saline stretch of dust devoid of life, yet teeming with toxicity. Even the rusting ship hulls stranded as the waterline receded are now gone, broken up and hauled away for scrap metal. It’s an extreme testament of bitter irony when a body of water once acclaimed for its fishing industry yields scrap metal instead of fish.


See related: Where is one-fifth of the world’s fresh water hiding?


Landlocked between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the disappearing act began during Nikita Khrushchev’s rule in the 1960s when the Soviet Union diverted the Aral’s only two water sources — the rivers Amu and Syr, but the Aral Sea had been doomed since 1919, when Lenin “decreed that the Soviet Union should become self-sufficient in cotton production,” according to LibArts London. When Stalin next took over and agricultural collectivization exploded, tremendous amounts of irrigation were needed for massive tracts of acreage. As the Amu and Syr were diverted, and cotton production began booming south of the Aral Sea, a disaster with tremendous environmental, social and economic repercussions was setting in.

The Soviets were stirring an unregulated cauldron of water, pesticide and fertilizer abuse across the region as the Aral Sea immediately began evaporating and shrinking, leaving fishing industry towns stranded and impotent. Salinity of the water escalated; drinking water was contaminated; and plant and animal life simply disappeared. “By 1987 it had divided into two sections, the ‘Small Northern Aral’ and the ‘Large Southern Aral.’ By 2008 only two small lakes remained and the world’s youngest desert, the Aralkum, formed as a consequence.”

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