The Aral Sea Water Transfer Disaster

The shrinking of the Aral Sea is a result of a large-scale water transfer project in an area of the former Soviet Union with the driest climate in Central Asia

Considered one of the world's worst environmental disasters 

Located in present-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Aral Sea Map (small scale, large scale)

Soviet central planning, in the 1930s, decided to grow irrigated cotton.

The cotton would earn valuable hard currency as an export crop.

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers were tapped for irrigation water.

By the 1960s millions of acres of land were irrigated and the Soviet Union became the world's second-largest cotton exporter.

The project was considered a huge success.

In 1965, water flow into the Aral sea was 50 cubic kilometers, already a reduction from the 1930s.

By the 1980s that flow was reduced to zero!

The sea was once 26,000 square miles, bigger than Lake Huron (23,000 sq. mi.) and Lake Michigan (22,500 sq. mi.). It began to shrink.

The most immediate impact was felt in the fishery industry that had employed 60,000 people.

Because essentially no new water was entering the lake, the salinity began to increase as water evaporated, devastating the lake's ecology.

The commercial fishery collapsed in the early 1980s.

In time the sea lost 90% of its original volume and the water level dropped more that 53 feet.

Aral Sea satellite images. - Aral Sea Shoreline Change Map, 1960 to 2010

The lake is now 3x saltier than the ocean (3.5%).

Additional impacts:


This water diversion project coupled with droughts and high evaporation rates in this hot, dry climate has caused a regional ecological, economic and health disaster. Problems caused by this massive water-diversion project include:

Aral Sea Dust Storm

Abandoned Ship (1 , 2 )

Aral Sea Dry Seabed (1 there was 1000 feet of water here), 2 note cows in bottom right)

Greatly increased health problems from a combination of toxic dust, salt and contaminated water for a growing number of the 58 million people living in the Aral Sea's watershed.

Such problems include abnormally high rates of

  • infant mortality
  • tuberculosis
  • anemia
  • respiratory illness (one of the world's highest)
  • eye diseases (from salt dust)
  • throat cancer
  • kidney and liver diseases (especially cancers)
  • arthritic diseases
  • typhoid fever
  • hepatitis


Can the Aral Sea be saved?

Five countries take water from the major rivers flowing into the Aral Sea:

 All are struggling economically and the diverted waters support billions of dollars worth of agriculture annually.

There is little hope of restoring the Aral Sea to its former status because it would take stopping all irrigation from the two rivers for 50 years just to increase the sea's area to twice its present size.

In the process the surrounding countries economies would be destroyed.

The Small Aral (to the north) is on the way to partial recovery as a result of an $85 million project funded by the World Bank.

The project erected a dam between it and the Big Aral in 2005.

In less than a year the northern portion filled with water from the Syr Darya, years ahead of expectations.

Small Aral Dam (1, 2, 3)

The water's rise is covering about 400 square miles of dry sea bed.

With the early filling, water is now beginning to flow over the dam into the parched Big Aral.

It will still take decades, if ever to recover, too much water is still being diverted for irrigation.