The Aral Experiment (excerpt)
What happened to the Aral? In the 1950s, ambitious Soviet planners embarked on a massive water program designed to make the desert bloom. Engineers redirected much of the river flow that fed the sea, diverting the water to a massive complex of agricultural fields. The Soviets succeeded in their crusade; Central Asia became a booming marketplace—particularly for cotton. But this economic conquest had a severe ecological cost. In just a few decades, the water diversions left the Aral in ruins. Cut off from its freshwater feeder streams, the sea began shrinking. A generation later, the disastrous ecological effects of this grand plan have left thousands of Central Asians in shock. In less than half a century, water levels in the Aral have fallen by eighty vertical feet. The sea has lost 75 percent of its surface area and 90 percent of its volume.1 The farmer’s gain was the fisherman’s loss—jobs dried up with the water, leaving chronic unemployment and social paralysis. The climate is different too. Like the North American Great Lakes, the old Aral moderated temperature extremes near the shoreline. Now Muynak’s summers arehotter, winters colder, and regional precipitation patterns have changed.
In recent years, as Great Lakes officials have contemplated a new water-management system, the Aral Sea disaster has been invoked repeatedly by environmentalists and others as an ecological rallying cry—an example of what not to become. “Even the grandest of resources have dried-up or fallen to misuse,” declared the environmental group Clean Wisconsin in a 2004 press release.2 “Consider the vivid examples of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the Colorado River in [the] Southwestern United States.” Because many Great Lakes residents who refer to the Aral Sea know little about it, and because most have never been there, this chapter attempts to provide a firsthand look at the Aral Sea’s desiccation. The purpose of this chapter is not to “prove” or “allege” that an Aral-like draining of the Great Lakes is in the offing, but rather to shed light on a place that is often referred to, but little understood. That way, as officials contemplate passage of the Great Lakes water Compact, regional citizens can decide for themselves whether there are any lessons to be learned from the Aral Sea’s destruction...