Our planet is literally fraught with natural disasters and ecological unrest these days, but few environmental disasters are as shocking as the bone-dry status of the Aral Sea– at least according to United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.
Once the fourth largest lake in the world; Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea is currently just ten percent of its original size. As of 2008, the maximum depth of the North Aral Sea was a measly 138 feet. The majority of the blame rests on the shoulders of a Soviet project intended to increase cotton production in the parched region. The project has been redirecting tributary rivers that used to feed the sea, not only causing its slow demise but ruining a once-prolific fishing economy in the process. The desolate wasteland is a sandy graveyard for stranded fishing trawlers that now stand like headstones amongst lolling camels. Even worse, the soil has become unworkable and salted, toxic sand left behind by the sea’s evaporation has traveled by wind as far away as Japan and parts of Scandinavia, plaguing local people with health problems such as tuberculosis, lung disease and kidney problems.
Following his helicopter flight over the shrinking sea, Ki-moon pleaded with Central Asian leaders to lay aside their political differences and increase their efforts to curtail the problem. At an official dinner held in Tashkent, he stated, “We should become better stewards in managing the environment. We must deliver this Planet Earth to our succeeding generations, so that they can live in a more hospitable, in a more environmentally sustainable way.” The Secretary-General has repeatedly pledged U.N. support but judging from the scarcity and rivalry over water supplies in the region, a swift turnaround for the Aral Sea could prove to be unrealistic.
(Orphaned ship photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons/Staecker)