What does the word Aral even mean? What is so important about it that we need to be concerned? In the Turkic languages, the definition of Aral can be understood as “island”.
The Aral Sea, technically a lake, is situated between Kazakhstan in the North and Uzbekistan in the South. Formerly known as the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has began to shrink, starting in the 1960s and almost completely drying up when we came to the 2010s.
The main reason behind the shrinkage of this once magnificent lake was the Soviet irrigation program of cotton and wheat, which diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that were feeding the Aral Sea. This unsustainable management of water resource usage led the lake to be one-tenth of its original size today, according to the estimation of geologists.
The shrinkage has been well documented ever since the 1960s and, of course, with this dramatic change, came a plethora of environmental and economic crises which shook the region to its core, changing the life of the occupants in a deprecating way.
The bed which the lake once resided in is now a seemingly endless salt flat, permeated with pesticides. Local people are now suffering from a significantly greater presence of chronic disease and a few years ago it was reported that in Karakalpakstan -an autonomous region in Uzbekistan- the toxicity of the environment was to point where the breast milk of mothers has been contaminated, thus, resulting in one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. The population experiences sand and dust storms for three months of the twelve months in a calendar year, severely impacting the quality of life and health of the inhabitants.
This negative development also impacted the economic activities of the Aral region natives – how could it not? Many of the fish species disappeared from the ecosystem of the lake and a once-lucrative fishing industry, which employed an immense number of ships, has collapsed. Many of the old ships can be seen today sitting at the base of the previously-lake grounds.
But what can be done? Regional cooperation is crucial to address these issues, and Central Asian countries should unite in their efforts between governments, NGOs, local communities, and donors, and take significant steps to restore the ecosystem,” says Vadim Sokolov, Head of the Department for Project Implementation of the Aral Sea Basin under the Uzbekistan Executive Directorate of IFAS.
Like many sustainability issues, we, as an individual, can only do so much. The biggest responsibility falls in the hands of the local governments and international organisations as well as big corperations that once contributed to this disaster.