Day by day, little by little, the world’s water supply is shrinking. Last year saw what used to be the world’s fourth largest lake – the Aral Sea, dried up for the first time in history. Leaving behind enough salt for all the fish and chips served in Britain for a decade. Although this isn’t the kind of salt you want to be sprinkling on your next piece of beer battered cod.
The Aral Sea, (or the Sea of Islands translated) is located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. No longer is the name relevant to the now baron eastern basin of the South Aral Sea, which was once a thriving fishing hub. The reason for this can be attributed to the severe mismanagement of resources to irrigate nearby cotton and rice crops. The Soviet led government of the 1950s and 1960s rerouted the Sea’s two main water sources which led to an explosion of prosperity in the poor region due to large production of cotton but it also immediately led to far reduced levels of water arriving to the sea. This caused a ripple effect (hehe get it!), that made the salinity of the lake rise sharply as water levels continued to decrease, destroying the fishing industry that gainfully employed and fed a significant portion of the population.
There is also the issue of fertilizers and pesticides entering the clean water supply as dust storms blow contaminated dust and sand from the evaporated parts of the basin into nearby drinking water. Reports have estimated that anywhere from 15 to 75 million tonnnes of contaminated sands are being spread further around the region due to high winds. This creates further issues for the region as water shortages become a political issue.
UNESCO has highlighted the region as a notable water conflict zone as tensions rise between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as much of the water is still used to support Uzbekistan’s cotton industry which accounts for $1 billion of exports annually. More than 60 million people live around the Aral Sea basin, all of who now face grave issues when it comes to accessing our most basic human need. The governments are yet to fully adapt any low energy, low cost desalination techniques to improve water quality which means many locals have resorted to plumbing their own solar desalination systems. with rudimentary designs it is possible to desalinate around 1.5 litres of salt water per day. This is hardly enough for a family and requires some plumbing skills that many people in the region do not have. Commercial tapware producers in the region are trying to make home desalination more efficient and effective for locals but it’s slow progress.
The lake has reached a point where it will never be returned to its former glory. There is hope that with the efforts to restore the biodiversity in the region, with many funds trying to increase vegetation cover to stabilize the soil so that the environmental health can be improved. If the human race is to gain anything from this, it is that water management is an extremely important issue and plans should be made for the future to prevent such a disaster occurring in other agricultural hot spots around the globe.