A look back at the splitting of the Aral Sea – The Kyzylorda region in 2006

A small overview: Conflicts over water in Central Asia

All major rivers in Central Asia pass through at least two countries from their source to the estuary or the point where they dry up. Besides, the majority of the population of these states live along these rivers and the adjacent water systems. Thus the entire economy, in Central Asia mainly agriculture, is dependent on these rivers carrying sufficient water. At the same time, however, the geographical location means that there is a water shortage in Central Asia in the large basin landscapes with their adjacent extensive desert complexes. Almost all water comes from the mountainous regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. These countries use far less than a quarter of the surface water produced, while Uzbekistan alone uses almost two thirds for cotton cultivation. In the last two decades, the mountain states have been investing more and more in hydroelectric power, and are therefore retaining a growing proportion of surface water. Conflicts are, therefore, inevitable (cf. Giese & Sehring 2007, p. 483).

In Soviet times a system was established that was beneficial to all sides. In the summer, a lot of electricity was produced in the upper reaches using hydroelectric power stations, from which Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also benefited. During this process, water was released from the reservoirs, which was sufficient for the agriculture of all Central Asian republics. In winter, when the rivers carry little water, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received fuels from the other republics to cover their energy deficits. This enabled them to store water for the summer. After the end of the Soviet Union, this system collapsed, and conflicts arose, which lasted until last year. Then Uzbekistan began to promote energy cooperation in Central Asia, and some problems were solved.

Lilija Gajsina (2017)

The Aral Sea Catastrophe

Until the middle of the 20th century, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest inland waterway in the world. In less than a century, the excessive expansion of cotton cultivation in the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan destroyed an ecological balance that had existed for thousands of years. The Russian Tsarist Empire had already begun to expand cotton cultivation in the 19th century. Strictly speaking, the Aral Sea, which has no outflow, no longer exists today. The former equilibrium of the water level was caused by the inflow of the two main rivers the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya and the evaporation.

With the increased use of water resources, the annual inflow of water into the Aral Sea decreased from 56 cubic kilometres in the early 1960s to 2 cubic kilometres in the 1980s. The little water that still reaches the lake is often highly contaminated with pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser residues from agriculture. In some years the Syr Darya did not reach the lake at all.

Sehring (2007, 498)

Pictures from the port of Aralsk: The statue of a man holding up a fish shows the former abundance of fish. The gate to the port today shows sand areas contaminated with salt, fertiliser and pesticides.

This resulted in an ecological disaster that affected the whole region. The water of the lake initially became much saltier, and native animal and plant species became extinct. The now exposed lake bottom is covered with salt crusts and crusts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This, together with the sand drifts, has resulted in a high level of contamination of the air and agricultural land.

The construction of the Kokaral Dam in Kazakhstan

Between 1987 and 1989, the water level dropped so much that a sill appeared, dividing the Aral Sea into a small northern and a southern half. Immediately, the government of the Kyzylorda region began to build a dam, which, due to a lack of building material, consisted only of heaped up sand. After the dam broke twice, the Kokaral Dam, now 13 kilometres long and ten metres high, was completed in 2005 thanks to World Bank funding.

However, the project was controversial. Because of the dam, the southern part of Lake Aral, which is mainly located in Uzbekistan, was considered to be lost for good, as it was separated from the Syr Darja by the dam construction. Around the northern, small Aral Sea, the ecosystem had indeed begun to recover in 2006. Fish and birds returned, and fishing became possible again. Anyone who visited the region during this time could physically experience first-hand the difference it made, whether or not there was water in the desert region. While the heat and the high level of pollutants in the air caused by evaporation processes and wind drift were unbearable, even near the lake one could breathe much more freely, and the temperature dropped noticeably.

Fishing in small numbers to supply the local population was already re-established in 2006.

The construction of the dam led to a deterioration in relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Finally, it was a rejection of any plans to save the Aral Sea as a whole. Desertification and salinisation of the soil also dominate around the Karakol Dam area. Dust storms are still frequent, but other results are increased rain clouds and changes in the microclimate, which suggest as well an improvement in the agricultural sector.

Barsa-Kelmes (the red arrow) was until 1995/96 an island in Kazakhstan, in the eastern part of the Great Aral Sea, which was formed after the division of the original Aral into the Small Aral Sea and the Great Aral Sea. When the Aral Sea dried up, it became a peninsula in 1995/96. In the summer of 2009 the lake around the Barsakelmes area dried up so much that the former island finally became part of the mainland. It encompasses the Barsa-Kelmes Nature Reserve.

Desert aquaculture in Central Asia

Not far from the Karakol Dam near the Barsa-Kelmes Nature Reserve around the former island of Barsa-Kelmes, lies one of the villages in southern Kazakhstan where a Soviet fish farm was located in 2006. The aquaculture sector in the countries of the Aral Sea drainage basin was set up during the Soviet era. By 1961, those responsible for fishing in the Aral Sea were already aware that the Aral Sea would dry up irretrievably and that the fisheries could not produce enough fish to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population of Central Asia.

The attention of policy makers, therefore, shifted slowly to aquaculture development. In the early 1960s, local governments, in cooperation with the All-Union Ministry for Fisheries, managed a largescale programme of aquaculture development, establishing more than 30 farms with a total pond area of ~31 000 hectares in Central Asia, including the southern part of Kazakhstan. Most of them were in Uzbekistan. This programme included the development of new technologies and the establishment of research and education facilities. The technology mainly promoted was extensive and semi-intensive cyprinid polyculture in earthen ponds. The species reared were common carp (Cyprinus carpio), silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), bighead carp (H. nobilis) and grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idellus). As a result, the fish farms of Central Asia produced ~38 000 tonnes in the 1980s.

Karimov 2011, p. 1-2

Aquaculture in Kazakhstan started in 1970. By the end of the 1980s there were 12 farms with a total area of 5 041 hectares (3 313 hectares of fattening ponds and 728 hectares of seedling ponds). By the early 1990s the number of fish farms had risen to 47. Between 1970 and 1990, the volume of fish produced by aquaculture increased from 692 tonnes to 9 883 tonnes (Timirkhanov, Chaikin and Makhambetova, 2007).

Pictures from villages near the northern Aral Sea from 2006.

In the desert and arid regions of Kazakhstan, the fish seed was the primary source of production. Significant were the fish farms of Syrdarya, Shardara and Shymkent and the fish farm of Kosjar at Lake Kamyslybas. In these fish farms were species of carp, silver carp and grass carp. By 2004, however, most of the 17 fish farms had already ceased operations. Until 2006, only 175 tonnes of fish were produced in the overview of desert aquaculture in the Aral Sea drainage basins.

The former port city of Aralsk

The former harbour town of Aralsk is today located about 12 km from the northern Aral Sea. The city has experienced a severe population decline for economic, social and ecological reasons. The fall of the fishing industry and the shipyard led to a high unemployment rate. The health problems of the population are severe, as it is constantly exposed to the above-mentioned residues of herbicides and pesticides and a high salt burden from wind and sandstorms.

The bazaar-building of Aralsk in 2006

In 2006, Aralsk gave the impression of a ghost town – during the day the temperatures were so high that hardly anyone ventured out onto the streets.

The central place of Aralsk and a petrol station in 2006

The Aralsk Regional Museum documents the history of the Aral Sea – local artists process the effects of the man-made disaster on the region.

In recent years, however, there have been increasing reports that improvement is in sight (see Chen 2018). Some commentators and scientists also generally reject the sweeping negative associations associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea and plead for more differentiation (cf. Nikitina 2020)

The return of the North Aral Sea has fuelled a revival of the fishing industry in Aralsk. In 2006, the annual fish catch totaled 1,360 tons, which comprised a majority of flounder – a saltwater species that the Kazakhs dislike. By 2016, the Aralsk Fish Inspection Unit recorded 7,106 tons of fish as freshwater species have returned, including pike-perch – which bring in a hefty price for local fishermen – breams, asp, and catfish.

Chen (2018)

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: Stefan Applis (2006)


Chen, D. (2018). The country that brought a sea back to life. The Aral Sea is bringing new wealth to fishing villages in Kazakhstan, but their neighbours on the opposite shore in Uzbekistan are suffering a very different fate. BBC-Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180719-how-kazakhstan-brought-the-aral-sea-back-to-life

Gajsina, L. (2017). Die fünf wichtigsten Wasserkonflikte in Zentralasien [The five main water conflicts in Central Asia]. Novastan. https://novastan.org/de/kirgistan/die-funf-wichtigsten-wasserkonflikte-in-zentralasien/

Giese, E. & Sehriong, J. (2007). Konflikte ums Wasser. Nutzungskonkurrenz in Zentralasien [Conflicts over water. Rivalry of use in Central Asia.]. In Machtmosaik Zentralasien. Traditionen, Restriktionen, Aspirationen [Central Asia power mosaic.Traditions, Restrictions, Aspirations]. Osteuropa 57(8-9), pp. 497-510.

Karimov, B. (2011). An overview on desert aquaculture in Central Asia (Aral Sea
Drainage Basin). In V. Crespi & A. Lovatelli, eds. Aquaculture in desert and arid lands:
development constraints and opportunities
. FAO Technical Workshop. 6–9 July 2010,
Hermosillo, Mexico. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Proceedings No. 20. Rome, FAO, pp. 61–84.

Sehring, J. (2007). Die Aralsee-Katastrophe [The Aral Sea disaster.]. In Machtmosaik Zentralasien. Traditionen, Restriktionen, Aspirationen [Central Asia power mosaic. Traditions, Restrictions, Aspirations]. Osteuropa 57(8-9), pp. 497-510.

Timirkhanov, S., Chaikin, B. & Makhambetova, Z. 2007. Analysis of fishing industry in
the Republic of Kazakhstan. Draft 8 October 2007. FAO. 65 pp.

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