The eastern basin of the South Aral Sea, also known as the Great Aral Sea, completely dried up this summer, according to NASA pictures taken in August. The Aral Sea was the world's fourth largest lake until it started drying up in the 1960s because of extensive cotton production in Soviet Central Asia.
"Summer 2014 marked another milestone for the Aral Sea, the once-extensive lake in Central Asia that has been shrinking markedly since the 1960s. For the first time in modern history, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea has completely dried," the NASA-run Earth Observatory website said on September 26.
"This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times," said Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University and an Aral Sea expert, according to Earth Observatory. "And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea."
The Aral Sea started drying up in the 1960s when the Soviet government diverted Central Asia's two major rivers - the Amu Darya and Syr Darya - to cotton fields. The sea, once covering an area of nearly 70,000 square kilometres and containing over 1bn cubic km of water, split into the northern and southern parts, now known as the Little Aral Sea and Great Aral Sea, in 1989 and the southern part split further into western and eastern lobes in 2003.
Micklin explained that the eastern lobe first disappeared in 2009 but it rebounded the following year because of wet years. The dry conditions in 2014 meant that the eastern lobe has now disappeared completely.
The two pictures below show first the Aral Sea in 1960, followed by the August 2014 that shows the eastern lobe gone.
Despite the disappearing sea, cotton is still the main crop in Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, after the countries obtained independence in 1991. This has meant that water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya continues to be diverted to cotton fields. The situation on the Amu Darya is further complicated by the fact that the Karakum canal which feeds water to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, withdraws up to 45% of the river's flows. As a result, the Amu Darya, which used to feed the sea from the south, hardly takes any water to the sea at the moment.
Unlike the Amu Darya, the water released from upstream Kyrgyz reservoirs along the Syr Darya for power generation reaches the northern part of the Aral Sea in winter and spring. In the 1990s the local population on the Kazakh side twice built a sand dam to stop water from flowing into the south. Having realised that the northern tip of the sea could be saved by a dam, Kazakhstan completed the $86m, 13km-long Kokaral dam across the Berg Straight with funding from the World Bank in 2005, which has resulted in the sea level in the Little Aral rising by 12 metres from its low point in 2003. The shore is now under 40 km from Aralsk.
Emboldened by the project, the Kazakh government now plans to build another dam to fill in the Saryshyganak Bay, stretching up to 40km in length and 16km in width. This will bring water to Aralsk and increase the water body of the Little Aral from the current 27 to 59 cubic km and decrease the water salinity to 3g per litre. The government hopes the second phase of the project will boost fishing and improve the environmental situation in the northern part of the Aral Sea.
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