ARAL SEA, 2005

Children run past an abandoned shipwreck in what was once the bed of the Aral Sea, near the village of Zhalanash, in southwest Kazakhstan


© Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov


The Aral Sea is fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, and used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. Located in Central Asia, it encompasses seven different countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), and once nourished the life that had developed around it. However, following a decision to increase its rice and cotton production starting in 1960, the USSR diverted the two tributaries feeding the lake to irrigate large crops in neighbouring areas. The primary objective was economic development at all costs. So, as agricultural production increased over the years, the lake dried up, leaving a desert of sand and salt. The ecosystem's equilibrium was irremediably broken as the loss of most of the lake’s water transformed the region’s climate, leading to colder winters and hotter summers. The winds began to raise clouds of dust charged with salt that deposited on nearby crops, requiring more and more frequent irrigation to dilute the salt. The sand that is carried by air currents is impregnated with the pollutants used for agriculture, seriously damaging the health of the local populations and reducing their life expectancy by up to 20 years. This sand is borne by the winds as far away as to the Himalayas, the forests of Norway and has even been found in the ice of Antarctica.
The Aral Sea has been called one of the most devastating environmental disasters on the planet, a clear example of how an entire ecosystem can be destroyed by a policy that fails to manage its natural resources sustainably. Waves lapping the shores, fishing boats hauling up fish and villagers awaiting the catch are now little more than memories of the local elders. Today, all that remains are the rusted hulls of the boats abandoned in the sun, reminding us that the environment is a matter of impalpable balances that must be respected and that affect us all.

Matteo Schiavinato