The Price of Cotton

The Aral Sea, Before the Streams Ran Dry : Image of the Day.

This image, from 1964, shows the Aral Sea as it existed for millenia.  In the middle of the vast arid region of Central Asia, the Aral Sea was an oasis of wetlands, water, and islands fed by snowmelt in faraway mountains.

Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, the former Soviet Union begin to divert the rivers that feed the sea for agricultural purposes.

The dams, canals, and other water works were built in order to transform the desert into agricultural fields for cotton and other crops. The Aral Sea has been slowly disappearing ever since.

As the crops flourished, the sea began to shrink.  The large cities surrounding the sea, which were home to large fishing industries, were left stranded several miles from the shore and eventually were abandoned.

The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Blowing, salty dust from the exposed lakebed became a public health hazard and degraded the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of the Aral Sea made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.

Now just 10% of its original size, the sea is virtually gone.  What will the future hold?  If the surrounding countries allow the rivers to run free again, will the sea recover?  Will it be too polluted to support life?  How will the agricultural communities that depend on the river water survive as their land grows too salty to support crops?

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