By Jenny Howell, CCCS —

Going through some old magazines last week, I picked up a 2002 copy of Harper’s magazine, with an article by Tom Bissall about the demise of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake, half the size of England, and supported a thriving fishing industry. The Soviets pursued an earlier Tsarist policy to irrigate Central Asia and grow cotton and wheat (both thirsty crops) in the desert, using water diverted from the Amy Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, which drained into the Aral Sea.

As more water was diverted into the desert and away from the lake, predictably, lake levels began to drop until the lake was just 10 per cent of its original size and had in fact become four smaller lakes—the largest two became known as the North and South Aral Seas.

Port towns and cities were now many miles from the water, and you have probably seen the images of rusting ships sitting in the desert as far as 100 km from the remaining sea. Where the water receded, the soil was heavily contaminated with pesticides and toxins that the remaining trickles of river had accumulated from the agriculture and carried to the sea. Salinity levels in the water and soil soared as irrigation washed safely buried ancient salts from land to the sea and the fish died.

Human populations are part of the ecosystem too, and as the ecosystems died, so did humans; infant mortality soared, anemia and tuberculosis rates went up, and cancer rates massively rose as people breathed in the toxins stirred up by frequent dust storms from the dry soil. The climate changed in the area without the mitigating influence of the water, so summers became very hot (often 120 degrees C) and winters became colder, reducing the chances of survival for any remaining crops.

The author was looking for hope in the situation as he was using the Aral Sea as a metaphor for the issues we face with climate change, but his article ended on a note of frustration and despair as he saw no chance for the sea, and by implication, one assumes no hope for future generations on the planet.

With recent news stories, such as the Antarctic shelf breaking off sooner than predicted and the inevitably resultant rise in sea level, I wonder when or if politicians will really get the connection between collapse of ecosystems and collapse of human populations. Scientists have been trying to point it out to them for years, gently at first and now urgently. With the controversy over directly related issues such as the recent Enbridge decision, I decided to revisit the Aral Sea story and see what has happened there in the 12 years since that article was researched and written.

With some dread, I started Googling, expecting the worst. But as screens came and went, I didn’t find the worst. In fact, there were stories of hope and co-operation; governments, scientists, non- profits, and banks began working together to solve a crisis. And once everyone worked together, they came up with a simple and (relatively) cheap plan.

The economic impact of the loss of the sea is estimated at around $1.6 billion. For $85 million they built a dam, so that all the remaining water coming into the sea from the Syr Darya River into the North Aral sea stayed there. Within months, sea levels rose four metres. The lake salinity went down and the fish returned. With reduced salinity, native plants re-established along shorelines, holding down the soil. There is even now a fishing industry again, so employment and food have returned to the area. There is talk of returning tourist towns. This is not an “everything’s fine now” story. The sea will never return to its former state of being one large sea and the South Aral is still expected to disappear as the Amu Darya River that once fed it no longer reaches it. However, if current trends and policies continue, the Aral Sea looks set to survive in some form, not to disappear completely as was predicted by most 10 years ago.

Tom Bissell’s article talked about the denial of the local populations, the wringing of hands that nothing could be done to save the sea and improve water management, all while leaky faucets ran all day and people still washed their cars in an area of severe drought. Yet somehow, enough people felt they could change the situation—and so they did.

Twelve years later, there is still a form of the Aral Sea around when it was predicted that by now there would be none. It is a damaged, massively diminished sea, but the fact that it still exists is key.

Can that happen with the overall climate change story currently unfolding? Some factors are falling into place, for example, there are global leaders out there sounding the alarm; the World Bank just issued a report stating that tackling climate change will grow the world economy; insurance companies can provide data on the direct expense and increasing frequency of unusual weather events; people are beginning to question the traditional parameters of ‘success’; social scientists repeatedly show happiness is not linked to stuff but to interpersonal relationships and a sense of community; and, parts of Europe are able to produce up to 50 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources.

Humans usually work better together in crisis situations, so with both scientists and economists stressing urgency and more people directly affected by changing weather patterns, maybe enough people are starting to recognize the issues and will support the politicians who understand that the economy and the environment are the same thing.

With awareness, scientific knowledge, co-operation and a common will, rapid change is possible from what can appear to be an inevitable path.


For more information on Water Wise or Waste Wise and any of our school and community programs, contact the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society at or visit the website at


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