Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Aral Sea

Your experts reassured you. “The Aral Sea is nature’s error,” they said. “It should have evaporated long ago. Using its water will be far more advantageous than preserving it.”

You studied its immense expanse between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the fourth largest inland sea in the world, and imagined new desert plantations, and a drained, fertile lakebed. It would easily counterbalance the loss of forty thousand jobs in the fisheries. Planting and exporting the ‘white gold’ of cotton would bring such wealth it would secure the USSR’s transition to socialism and feed the growing nation.

You spent thirty million roubles diverting the two feeder-rivers, and even though the poorly-built canals wasted over fifty percent of their water, you were satisfied.

But as the Aral shrank, a polluted seabed was revealed. Toxic dust storms blew residues from weapons testing, pesticides and fertilisers across the land. Within a decade, human mortality rose fifteen times, and rates of cancer and lung disease rose thirty times. All the Aral’s fish, half its mammals and three-quarters of its birds became extinct. At the same time, the heavily-irrigated plantations raised the water table and turned the desert to salt.

Today the fishing boats lie beached in salt, out of sight of water, testament to the greatest irrigation disaster in history.