Aral Sea Shows Signs of Recovery, While the Dead Sea Needs a Lifeline

By Eliza Strickland | April 22, 2010 4:27 pm

Aral-SeaThere are few more dramatic examples of humanity’s careless treatment of the earth than the Aral Sea.

The Aral’s precipitous decline began in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began using river water to irrigate the mega-farms it established on the arid steppe. As the river water flowing into the sea slowed to a trickle, the Aral began drying up.

Once a colossal geographic feature—at 26,000 square miles (67,300 square kilometers), it was the fourth largest inland water body on earth in terms of surface area—the Aral shrank to hold just one-tenth of its original volume, becoming a tragic shadow of itself [National Geographic]. Fisheries collapsed, people moved away, towns were abandoned, and the Aral became famous primarily for its ghostly landscapes, with rusting ships lying on sand dunes.

But now scientists report that the northern sector of the Aral is making a recovery, due to a concerted effort from the Kazakh government, the World Bank, and scientists. A dam completed in 2005 raised water levels and decreased salinity, and increased the North Aral’s span by 20 percent. Soon native plants, stifled for years by the saltwater, began to sprout, and migrating birds like pelicans, flamingos, and ducks again began to visit the Aral.  Nowadays, “It’s a paradise for birds,” says Russian Academy of Sciences zoologist Nick Aladin, who has been studying the Aral since the 1970s. “It’s a place for pleasure, and it’s an enormous victory” [National Geographic]. Freshwater fish have also returned, leading to hopes of a resuscitated fishing industry. And while the South Aral remains in dire straits, researchers say the tentative revival of the North Aral gives them hope.

Another sea, another headache. Over in the Middle East, several countries are weighing a proposal that could give new life to the dwindling Dead Sea–but that may cause environmental problems of its own.

In the past century, the Dead Sea’s surface area has shrunk by almost a third. The Jordan River, which once fed the super-salty lake, has been tapped for irrigating and drinking water by Israel, Syria, and Jordan; shore-side factories that evaporate the water to extract minerals have exacerbated the problem. Without action, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink. But a proposal being evaluated by the World Bank could revive the lake with a 180-kilometre-long conduit carrying water from the Red Sea 400 metres downhill to the Dead Sea through a canal, pipeline or some combination of the two. The water’s flow would generate electricity to run a desalination plant, providing drinking water for local people [Nature News].

But environmentalists are questioning the wisdom of a so-called Red-Dead connector. Drawing vast quantities of water from the Red Sea could damage the fish and coral there, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East. Green advocates also worry that the Red Sea water will change the chemistry of the salty Dead Sea, making life harder for the sea’s salt-tolerant microorganisms and encouraging blooms of algae that thrive in less salty water. They argue that intensive water conservation programs could improve the flow of the Jordan River and render the expensive Red-Dead canal unnecessary.

Israeli geologist Ittai Gavrieli, who is studying the impacts of the proposed conduit, says the region has a tough decision to make. If nothing is done, the situation will only get worse, but a Red–Dead conduit would carry with it some real risks. The decision to stop the sea’s decline, says Gavrieli, “is a matter of choosing between bad and worse. But the question is, what is bad and what is worse?” [Nature News]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Return of the Aral Sea offers an in-depth look at the dam that’s helping the North Aral
DISCOVER: Life in the Dead Sea explains how microbes survive in the salty water
DISCOVER: Better Med (or Red) than Dead describes an earlier push for the Red-Dead canal
80beats: Saudi to Use Plentiful Resource (Sunlight) to Produce Scarce Resource (Fresh Water)

Image: NASA, showing the Aral Sea

  • Arthur Reader

    There are few more dramatic examples of humanity’s careless treatment of the earth than the Aral Sea.

    Not humanity – the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t careless, it was a deliberate act by an appalling totalitarian regime.

    The Aral Sea is what happens when you let Communistic ideology control the environment.

  • Zero

    And the Cayahoga River fire is what happens when Capitalism runs unchecked.

  • Hussam Al-Tayeb

    “In the past century, the Dead Sea’s surface area has shrunk by almost a third.”

    I wonder what will be the geographical and political implications to Dead Sea eventually disappearing even if after two hundred more years. Eventually some country will want to claim that open dry land.

    Regrading the Aral Sea, yes people never really care enough many times until it is very late.

  • Arthur Reader

    And the Cayahoga River fire is what happens when Capitalism runs unchecked.

    Funnily enough the Cayahoga River is doing just fine now because capitalism enabled enough resources to fix the problem. That’s the story the world over: poverty and authoritarianism produce environmental catastrophe.

  • pheldespat

    “Things are not quite as hopeful for the South Aral Sea. Micklin predicts that the eastern lobe of the South Aral (the lighter area near the middle of the photo) will dry up for good this summer if the climate remains as dry as it has been in previous years.

    Published March 31, 2010”

    The North branch of the Aral Sea is somehow safe now. The South branch is doomed.

  • Zero

    @Arthur Reader
    What I was trying to point out is that Capitalism without rules (i.e. EPA, clean air act, etc.) can be as bad as Communism or Authoritarianism. Without strong rules created by and agreed upon by the majority of the people and strongly enforced Capitalists won’t care for the environment much more than the others. After all the proper job of a company under Capitalism is to make a profit for it’s share holders. Which is as it should be.

  • scott

    It’s always been a fact of human existance..being downstream just sucks….

  • opit

    Capitalism without rules is Fascism. Worrying about ‘Left-Right’ rather than Authoritarianism – which covers both ideologies – is to say that somehow one Police State is different from another. Shall we ask the families of the imprisoned, torture and murdered how important such niceties really are ?

  • CapitalismGood

    Capitalism also brought us Love Canal, Bhopal, Times Beach, and the very real possibility unchecked population growth in the American Southwest leading to water shortages.

  • Sherwood Botsford

    Re: Dead sea.

    I’m sorry. I don’t get really excited about microbes and brine shrimp. If you do NOTHING, they will become crunchy.

    In general solutions that pay for themselves work faster. Bringing water in from either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean can generate power twice — once by the elevation difference, and once by the dilultion process. Sure, you’ll end up with a salinity gradient — less salty wehre the resalinization plant comes in.

    Done right, it can be a source of water and power in a region that needs both.

    The only way we as a species can have zero impact is to all commit suicide. I consider that many people would object. So we have to choose at any given time between workable alternatives.

    30 years of watching catastrophists predict the End of Life As We Know It has convinced me that eco-systems are much more robust than previously thought.
    Most impacts from serious oil spills vanish in a couple years. A decade brings fish back in the Aral Sea. Lake Erie is coming back to life. Polar bears that lived on baby seals are now eating bird eggs,

    The big disruptions are ones when we move a pest from one habitat to another, and it takes a while for a new balance to be struck. We still finding the balance from having earthworms in North America, honey bees in North America. Dutch elm disease.

    Much of the time natural selection for 5-10 generations works out a resistant type. E.g. We’re starting to see resistant elms, resistant chestnuts.

    Critters with short life cycles — microbes and brine shrimp and their ilk, will adapt to changing salinity fairly quickly.

    Study the Dead Sea options carefully, yes. But this looks like a viable soltuion to me.

  • Mike Moxcey

    It ain’t just the Russians. Look at the Colorado River. America has been destroying it since 1922. We use its water to grow cotton in Arizona and golf courses in Nevada. That is desert, not arid steppe (like Eastern Colorado). The Colorado ain’t much of a river any more (it doesn’t make it all the way to Mexico) and the dammed lakes we created with its water are drying up.

    We’re all in the same boat, too many people for the available resources.
    The Earth is a single size.

  • Sue Timko

    Hey Mike, as a resident of Colorado you beat me to it, but , you are absolutely right about the Colorado River. The green lawns and huge fountains (and all that needlessly evaporating water) I have seen in Phoenix and other desert cities in Arizona and elsewhere are shocking to me, let alone the golf courses and crops that have no business growing in the desert. Anybody down there heard of xeriscaping? I live in a relatively “wet” part of Colorado (about 14″/year of precipitation), but. gave up the plants I would have planted in my native Ohio long ago. They don’t belong here Vive la difference! There are some awfully nice things that grow with litle or no artificial irrigation. Xeiscape does not equal “zero” scape. And stealing water so some wealthy retirees (or others who like green golf courses who should have stayed east of the Mississippi) is no better than what the Soviets did to the Aral Sea, is it? A little common sense is in order. Thanks, Mike.

  • Bilbal

    Long term consequences forgotten.

    Consider :
    buffalo herds that stretched to the horizon –
    passenger pigeons that filled the sky –
    redwoods as old as Jesus, now a rarity –
    southwest prairie grassland, overgrazed, now called desert –
    great prairie grasslands, plowed and blown away, remember the dustbowl –
    river confined by dikes, deltas drained, remember Katrina –
    coastlines developed, marshes drained, remember any significant hurricane –
    and the list goes on ….

    Lest we forget our own foibles.

  • RickW

    While we’re at it, why not run a tunnel from the Pacific to Death Valley? And from the Mediteranean to the Qattara Depression? And a canal from the Arabian Sea to Lake Assal?
    And of course, there is always the enticing possibility of resurrecting NAWAPA:

  • Capdiamont

    Something not mentioned in this post, is the live anthrax, and other bio weapons Russia put on what what was an island in the Aral sea.


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