Cotton and the Disappearance of the Aral Sea


Receding of the Aral Sea from 1960 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

The fishing towns that lined the borders of the Aral Sea were once a showpiece of the Soviet Union’s industrial might. The sea was so teeming with life that sailors could pull ashore 50,000 tons of fish a year, bringing resources and economic opportunity to the communities that worked on its shores (Pearce 109). Located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has transformed from one of the four largest lakes in the world to perhaps the world’s greatest environmental disaster. In under half a century, water diversion projects and mismanagement have reduced the Aral to less than 10% of its original surface area. Formerly productive fishing towns now sit in the middle of a salty desert. Populations are plagued with chronic anemia from salty tap water and a plethora of respiratory conditions brought on by the pesticides that once resided on the sea floor are now carried across the land by desert winds. To suggest that the disappearance of the Aral Sea was an unforeseen consequence of Soviet era engineering is an outright falsehood. Many scientific and political leaders in the former Soviet Union believed the Aral Sea to be a mistake of nature and a waste of water resources. This paper will explore the economic motivations and engineering decisions that lead to the shrinking of the Aral Sea and some of the environmental conditions that contributed to accelerating the sea’s decline. The loss of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s worst manmade environmental and public health catastrophes and understanding its causes and effects is important to responding to future crises brought on by climate change.


Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The Aral Basin is fed by two tributaries, the Syr Darya which flows from the melting of the Tien Shan glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and the Amu Darya which springs from the Pamir mountains ranges of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan. Despite being surrounded by desert, the boundaries of the Aral Sea remained unchanged for centuries. While the sea would have experienced significant losses to evaporation (estimated at 0.9 km3 per 1000 km2 of surface area) and very little rainfall (around 6 km3 annually), the sea’s surface and subsurface flows were in such stable equilibrium that the sea level is known to have fluctuated by no more than 3 meters between 1850 and 1965 (Precoda 110). Though the Aral Sea has no outlets through which surface flows can carry away salt, the waters were only moderately saline during this time: around 1.0% in the sea’s interior waters and up to 1.4% near the southeastern shores (Precoda 110).

Over the course of human history, many civilizations have called the Aral Sea Basin home. Once part of the main historical East-West trading passage, the Silk Road, the region has established a tradition of irrigation and drainage systems that sustained agricultural production since ancient times. This agricultural development is believed to have had little impact on the volume of water flowing into the Aral Sea because the areas most developed were located in valleys and river deltas. These areas would have naturally experienced higher moisture levels than the surrounding deserts. “After draining and clearing these areas of reed growths, they were transformed into granaries and often the water used was less than that utilized by the moisture-loving plants which grew in the area” (Precoda 110). Accordingly, the water balance of the Aral Sea was not affected and most of the river flows did not leave the Aral Sea Basin.


Central Asia Map (Source: MapCruzin)

By the 19th century, the fishing ports of Aralsk in the Syr Dary delta to the north and Moynaq in the Amu Darya delta to the south were the principal ports and economic centers for the region. The Moynaq fish cannery processed thousands of tons of fresh fish and distributed the protein across the expansive Soviet Union. Also known to be a popular spa town, Soviet tourists once flocked to Moynaq to swim in the sea and sunbathe on the pristine beaches (Kumar 3800). The reeds that grew along the seashore provided a seemingly endless source of raw materials and the moisture-loving trees that grew in the Amu Darya delta provided habitat to a diverse bird population as well as a barrier to erosion, the always looming threat of the surrounding deserts (Precoda 110).

Despite the diverse economic activity provided by the natural resources of the Aral Sea, many in Stalin’s USSR acted upon the desire to conquer nature in the name of social and economic progress. Zeev Wolfson, a senior Soviet official who smuggled a manuscript titled “The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union” to the West in the 1970s detailed the extent to which this attitude shaped the policies coming out of Moscow. Wolfson noted that “the more such projects contradicted the laws of nature, the more highly they were regarded, the more brilliantly the illusion of their success demonstrated the power and wisdom of the new leaders” (Pearce 120). In the years following the Second World War, Stalin began his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature and Soviet engineers strived to prove that they were willing to go to any extreme to demonstrate USSR’s industrial might (Kumar 3797). In the United States, engineers were building dams in deep gorges so as to collect the most water and generate the most electricity with the least loss of land. “But Soviet engineers ignored such natural features. They worried little about drowning wide, fertile valleys with shallow reservoirs. And in all they eventually flooded an area roughly the size of France” (Pearce 121). Efficient hydroelectric generation requires the extreme pressure differentials that come about from deep reservoirs, but many of the dams built across the Soviet Union had such shallow reservoirs that up to a thousand square miles might be flooded for very little energy production.  In his manuscript, Wolfson calculated that in many of Stalin’s hydroelectric projects, if the fertile land had been planted with hay rather than inundated, the annual harvest could have been burned to produce more electricity than the hydroelectric plant was capable of outputting (Pearce 121).

By the early 1930s, large-scale irrigation systems championed by the Soviet Union had destroyed almost every remnant of the traditional water management practices that once supported human civilization in the region. Technological advances such as more powerful construction equipment allowed the Soviet Union to remake its own surface hydrology. By building huge canals, irrigation waters could be transported to higher elevations and hundreds of miles from rivers and deltas (Kumar 3798).   These projects were undertaken without consideration of their consequences. In fact, prominent Soviet leaders declared the sea’s uselessness and believed that the loss of the Aral would be compensated by the fertile land that was sure to be exposed and the increased agricultural production to follow. They forecast the expansive pasturelands that the receding waters would leave behind and the countless flocks and herds that would replace the fish catches (Precoda 111).  Agajan Babayev, former president of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, went so far as to state publically, “I belong to those scientists who consider that the drying up of the Aral is far more advantageous than preserving it,” and that “many scientists are convinced, and I among them, that the disappearance of the sea will not affect the region’s landscapes” (Precoda 111). This view prevailed and with respect to the Aral Sea Basin, the postwar years can be characterized by plans to reallocate the entire flows of the Syr and Amu basins for irrigation.


Satellite Image of Aral Sea comparing 1989 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

Between 1930 and 1961, the annual volume of water diverted for irrigation increased from 35 to 56.6 km3 per year. This volume peeked around 1980 at 109.1 km3 per year.  Water use for industrial and municipal services also increased from 7.5 to 18 km3 per year during this period (Tstsenko 192). Flows from the Syr Darya have failed to reach the Aral Sea since the 1970s and in some years, no water passes through the river delta of the Amu Darya either (Kumar 3798). In 2010, the Aral Sea was estimated to have shrunk to less than 10% of its original surface area (Tstsenko 192). The key contributor to the collapse of the Aral Sea was most likely the construction of the Karakum Canal, the first irrigation project to take water from the Aral Sea Basin and dump it into the catchment of the Caspian Sea to the west (Pearce 113). At 800 miles, the Karakum Canal is the longest irrigation canal in the world. With an average flow of 13 million acre-feet of water a year taken from the Amu Darya, the canal is comparable in size to the Hudson River. Most of this water ends up to the south of the Aral Sea Basin in the now-independent Republic of Turkmenistan, which has the unfortunate claim of “using more water per citizen than any other nation on Earth” (Pearce 112).  This achievement can be credited to the country’s primary export, cotton.

Soviet planners undertook these large-scale irrigation projects with a single-minded devotion to cotton production. Cotton needs a warm climate to grow, which is why Moscow decided that Central Asia would be the hub of cotton production, but it is also a very thirsty crop and growing it in the arid fields of the semi-desert region requires reliable flows from waterworks (Kumar 3798). Projects to reroute the region’s water flows were undertaken without concern for the costs and irrigated agriculture increased from 2.9 million ha in 1950 to 7.2 million in 1990 (Precoda 111). Political slogans from the post-WWII era included “cotton independence,” ”produce millions of tons of cotton at any cost,” and “fulfill the plan, at any cost” (Precoda 111). Moscow even required that the Central Asia region of the USSR import grains like wheat and barley rather than grow the crops themselves.  Still today, decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, “cotton production transcends all other national goals. In Uzbekistan, the cotton business still amounts to 60 percent of exports and employs 40 percent of the workforce – as well as consuming 90 percent of its water” (Pearce 119).


Cotton Field in Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

While cotton is a thirsty crop, it is not that thirsty; staggeringly inefficient water use is rampant in the region’s cotton fields. In places, at least half the water being transported by irrigation canals simply seeps through the sand. Half of the water that remains is indiscriminately poured onto already waterlogged fields that either have insufficient drainage networks or lack them all together (Pearce 112). The excess water then evaporates from the land or seeps into low-lying regions. Large lakes of irrigation water have appeared along the border between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, filled by the runoff of decrepit irrigation projects and waterlogged fields. Smaller lakes can be found near the irrigated fields, many of them permanent enough to have been given names by the locals (Pearce 113). Most of the world’s irrigation networks include complex drainage systems to remove unwanted water and chemicals from fields, but the Soviet planners never got around to building these systems. This failure has resulted in the growth of heavily polluted brine lakes appearing in the desert landscape just as the waters of the Aral Sea receded miles from their former shores. In all, less than 10 percent of the water taken from the Aral Sea Basin is of direct benefit to cotton crops. The rest disappears through the sandy soil or evaporates (Kumar 3798).

Even in regions inundated with overflow irrigation water, unpolluted water resources can be difficult to find. This water pollution is not only the direct effect of fertilizers and pesticides used by agriculture, the primary water user, but also by the industrial and mining sectors which often work with dirty and outdated production processes, and by the lack of sewage systems in areas of high population pressure (Spoor 410). “The industrial sector, now largely privatized, still uses production techniques which are damaging to the environment, but there is neither incentive nor capital to invest in cleaner technology” (Spoor 412). This combination renders large quantities of diverted irrigation water unsafe for human use and destructive to local ecosystems.

The evaporation of water from waterlogged fields also poses a slow but permanent threat to the continued cultivation of the region’s farmland. All rivers carry salt, dissolved from rocks in the headwaters and picked up from deposits downstream. This salt once flowed into the Aral Sea, but now it is accumulating in irrigated fields. To prevent the salt from poisoning crops, farmers pour more water onto their fields with the intent of washing the salt away. This effort is of limited success as the new water begins to evaporate under the desert sun and the fields are left saltier and more waterlogged than before. Here is when the futility of this viscous cycle becomes clear; each year, farmers must add more water than the year before, resulting in ever increasing salt deposits left in the soil. Eventually the flushing fails and the fields are abandoned. In Uzbekistan, around 3 million acres of cotton fields have been lost to salt and waterlogging. In the autonomous region of northwestern Uzbekistan known as Karakalpakstan, one in five fields has been abandoned and the productivity of the remaining land has halved since the 1970s (Pearce 115). “Soviet planners inadvertently stumbled on a foolproof system for creating deserts,” a process that is continuing relatively unabated to this day (Pearce 115).


(Source: Flickr)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, very little progress has been made to correct the waste of water. “The political economy of the cotton sector is intimately connected with the vested interests at national and local levels,” preventing the hydrological inefficiencies of irrigation systems from being addressed (Spoor 411). There is little incentive to challenge the foundation of the region’s economic prosperity in the name of ecological restoration. The most direct path to restoring the natural hydrological cycle of the region would be to demolish the canal systems, but such a project is out of the question. International efforts to save the Aral Sea have been met with local governments insisting that the welfare of the cotton farmers must come first (Kumar 3801). Nothing less should be expected considering the regional dependence on cotton exports for annual income. The end of the USSR has also meant the regional transition from a powerful central government to several sovereign nations. “Where previously Moscow made all the decisions relating to the water allocation and use, disagreements about water supply and consumption must now be resolved by negotiations” (Spoor 411). In 1992, the United Nations organized an international conference to establish a regional water strategy, but to no avail (Kumar 3801). The Central Asian republics are unwilling to relocate their cotton monoculture and risk its economic bounty.

The vision of Soviet planners to build a cotton economy in Central Asia is now a reality. The continued economic growth of the region is thus tied to the destruction of the Aral Sea.  Although the introduction of world market prices for inputs is reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the transitional economies of Central Asia, the “dependency on cotton has actually increased, as it is the main hard currency earner. Furthermore, water remains either free or only symbolically priced” (Spoor 413). It is an undeniable truth that in the near future, the Aral Sea will not be returned to its 1960 level. Due to the regional dependence on the waters, long-term changes are also unlikely.

The policies and practices that conspired to remove the Aral Sea from the face of the Earth read like a catalogue of poor environmental policies and self-destructive agricultural projects. Maps still show the Aral Sea as a prominent feature of Central Asia, ignorant of how the waters have been imprudently redistributed across the arid landscape. “During the Soviet period in Central Asia, the destruction of the traditional water management and crop rotation systems in the early stage of the Soviet era, followed by the ‘cotton at all price’ policy from Moscow from the 1960s onwards, greatly endangered the environmental sustainability of the Aral Sea Basin” (Spoor 420).  The exclusive focus on cotton production, under a sociopolitical system that ignored the environmental impact of inadequate long-term resource management, has turned the Aral Sea Basin into a disastrous experiment. Rather than revealing fertile fields and pasture lands, the receding waters of the sea exposed a layer of salts and pesticides. The desert winds that blow over the Aral Sea Basin once carried moisture to the surrounding ecosystems, but now the winds are dry, salty, and contaminated by a centuries worth of industrial farming cast back into the world.


Old Fishing Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The destruction of the Aral Sea will remain a textbook example of unsustainable development for generations to come. The uncompromising support of cotton production at any human and environmental cost is the greatest environmental injustice of the Aral Sea saga. Though it may be many decades before the Aral Sea is removed from our maps, the Aral Sea has almost entirely disappeared from the Earth, unlikely to return. The once proud fishing port of Moynaq is still one of the region’s most popular tourist stops, but now visitors go to see the rusting hulks of fishing vessels stranded in the desert, hundreds of miles from the water.



Kumar, Rama Sampath. “Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia.” Economic and Political Weekly 37 (2002): 3797-802. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Pearce, Fred. Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization. Washington, D.C.: Island, 2004.

Precoda, Norman. “Requiem for the Aral Sea.” Ambio 20 (1991): 109-14. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Spoor, Max. “The Aral Sea Basin Crisis: Transition and Environment in Former Soviet Central Asia.” Development and Change 29 (1998): 409-35. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Tsytsenko, K. V., and V. V. Sumarokova. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. Ed. Michael H. Glantz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

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