Natural resources are the backbone of the global economy. Oil, natural gas, lumber, and other precious commodities are the building blocks of the world market. Due to the overwhelming economic potential held within natural resources, it is no surprise that the institution of government has worked its way into the game. Things like EPA standards, the Keystone Pipeline, and laws on fracking show that American politics has a strong hold over the conservation, or the lack thereof, of natural resources.

With this in mind, it is important to ensure that the actions taken by governmental leaders regarding our natural resources are responsible ones. The story of Aral Sea stands as a testament to that importance.

The Aral Sea in 1989 left and now Photo from the NASA Earth Observatory
The Aral Sea in 1989 (left), and now (Photo from the NASA Earth Observatory)

Before 1960, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest inland body of water on Earth. Bordered by Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south, the sea held 68,000 cubic kilometers of fresh water. Its basin hosted 34 million people, and over 43,000 tons of fish were caught in the Sea in a single year.

However, diversion of the sea’s freshwater inflows over the past half-century has split the lake in two, the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea, rendering it one-tenth of its original size. Virtually all fish in the Southern Aral Sea are dead, and the population in the Aral Sea Basin has dropped despite overall population increases in the surrounding countries.

The devastation in the Aral Sea can be traced back to irrigation projects in the 1960s that sought to expand cotton exports by using Aral waters to develop the cotton industry in Uzbekistan. However, the poorly constructed canals lost up to 75% of the diverted water to the desert sand. The resulting desertification destroyed the Aral ecosystem, leaving public health problems in its wake.The quality of drinking water declined due to high salinity, bacteriological contamination, and the presence of pesticides and heavy metals from fertilizer runoff and weapons testing.

Aral Sea Kazakhstan Photograph taken by Christopher Herwig
Aral Sea, Kazakhstan (Photograph taken by Christopher Herwig)

The Aral Sea Basin is now plagued by high concentrations of respiratory problems caused by toxic dust storms rising from the dry salt deposits that were once covered by the sea. Karakalpakstan, the regional epicenter of the crisis, experiences high child mortality rates (75 children per 1,000 newborns) and high maternal mortality rates (about 120 women per 10,000 births).

Today, recovery in the Aral Sea is blocked by conflicting interests in Uzbekistan. The country stands as the fourth largest cotton exporter in the world thanks to the old irrigation canals. Not wanting to forfeit its cotton industry, the Uzbek government fights to continue draining the Aral waters at the expense of the Sea and its ecosystem. Uzbek President Islam Karimov stressed the need for secure employment growth and a stable business environment dependent upon cotton fed by Aral waters in order to justify the diversion of water; at the same time, many Uzbeks go thirsty.

This dichotomy between economic vigor and basic needs that is present in the Aral Sea is one that is not too removed from American society. Whether its water, oil, natural gas, or even clean air, humanity’s careless intrusion upon nature is rapidly approaching a tipping point. Though we may not see such brash consequences yet, The United States will soon find itself at this same crossroads. We can only hope that we follow the right path.