Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Massive development of irrigated agriculture in Soviet Central Asia between 1950 and 1990 caused drying up and salinization of the Aral Sea, degrading the environment and creating a public health crisis. Acknowledged by the Soviets shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Aral crisis became the responsibility of independent Central Asian republics that were ill equipped to handle it.

Summary of Event

In 1960, the Aral Sea was a landlocked, brackish lake 66,000 square kilometers in extent, bounded by the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Constantly renewed by the Amu Dar’ya and Syr Dar’ya rivers, it supported a thriving fishery. Forests and wetlands in the river deltas harbored a wealth of wildlife and sheltered migratory waterfowl. The rivers and sea formed the basis of an extensive, diverse, and renewable system of agriculture dating back to antiquity. Soviet Union;environmental policy Aral Sea;salinization Ecological disasters [kw]Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area (Mar., 1991) [kw]Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area, Supreme (Mar., 1991) [kw]Aral Sea a Disaster Area, Supreme Soviet Declares the (Mar., 1991) [kw]Sea a Disaster Area, Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral (Mar., 1991) [kw]Disaster Area, Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a (Mar., 1991) Soviet Union;environmental policy Aral Sea;salinization Ecological disasters [g]Soviet Union;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] [g]Central Asia;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] [g]Kazakhstan;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] [g]Uzbekistan;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] [c]Disasters;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] [c]Environmental issues;Mar., 1991: Supreme Soviet Declares the Aral Sea a Disaster Area[08040] Monin, A. S. Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;virgin lands program Brezhnev, Leonid

Beginning with Nikita S. Khrushchev’s “virgin lands” program in the early 1960’s, the Soviet Union embarked on an ambitious program of economic expansion in Central Asia. This program was based on a philosophy, later termed “ecoperestroika,” Ecoperestroika that saw restructuring of the environment for human development, without regard for environmental consequences, as part of socialist destiny. Ignoring early signs that diverting river water for hydroelectric power and irrigation was damaging regional ecology, central planners encouraged wholesale expansion of cotton cultivation, from 4.6 million hectares in 1960 to 7 million hectares in 1990. Shifting from diversified agriculture to cotton monoculture had many adverse environmental consequences. Cotton is a thirsty crop and quickly exhausts the soil. Marginal lands required huge inputs of fertilizer and pesticides. Irrigated land became progressively more saline, increasing water demand in a vicious cycle ultimately leading to abandonment. In an effort to reduce downstream pollution, irrigation runoff was diverted into evaporation reservoirs, creating poisoned human-made lakes. By the late 1970’s, river flow to the sea had almost ceased.

Begun in 1954, completed in 1988, and extended in 1993, the 1,350-kilometer Karakum Canal in Turkmenistan epitomizes poor construction and planning. Open and unlined for most of its length, the canal, which diverts nearly 20 percent of the total flow of the Amu Dar’ya River, loses more than half of its water through evaporation and seepage into nonagricultural land. Much of the land so hopefully brought into cultivation has since been abandoned.

Signs of deterioration first became evident in the mid-1960’s, when a new phase of hydrotechnological construction coincided with a drought. Responding to a documented decline in fisheries, the Soviet Council of Ministers recommended an integrated approach to resource management in the region, but no action was taken. By 1975, the level of the lake had dropped more than 4 meters, and its salinity had increased noticeably. A 1975 commission concluded that at current irrigation levels, the sea would eventually be reduced to a small hypersaline reservoir. Projecting to 1990, it predicted a sea level of 46.3 meters and a salinity of 1.8 percent, based on improvements in irrigation efficiency that were not implemented. The actual figures in 1990 were 38 and 3 percent, respectively.

In the early 1980’s, Soviet planners seriously entertained the possibility of diverting water from the Ob’ and Irtysh rivers in western Siberia to expand irrigated acreage in Kazakhstan. Abandoned in 1986 as economically unfeasible, this effort might have slowed desertification in the Aral basin but would not have reversed it. Diversion of Siberian rivers to replenish the Aral Sea was again suggested in 1990. It has become a political as well as economic impossibility since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.





By 1990, total surface had shrunk by 40 percent, and volume by 60 percent. The sea had completely lost its productive fisheries. Retreating waters left behind expanses of wind-swept salt flats producing dust storms that spread salt and pollutants on surrounding agricultural land. Deprived of the moderating influence of the sea, the area became drier and subject to temperature extremes. The Karakalpaks, the indigenous ethnic group inhabiting the Amu Dar’ya delta region, exhibited high rates of respiratory disease, infant mortality, and birth defects.

The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, coming at the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;glasnost policy of glasnost, led to more open discussion of environmental problems in the Soviet Union. A. S. Monin, a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, published a series of articles in Novy Mir in 1987 documenting the extent of the Aral Sea disaster and criticizing agencies that should have taken action. In 1988, Novy Mir collaborated with several newly founded environmental groups to send a fact-finding expedition to the Aral Sea. For the first time, scientists from the West traveled to the affected region, closed to outsiders for decades. In October, an International Symposium on the Aral Crisis brought scientists and environmental policy makers from the Central Asian republics, Russia, Europe, and the United States to Nukus, Uzbekistan. This body addressed a resolution to the Supreme Soviet recommending that the Aral Sea basin be declared a disaster area.

On paper, the Soviet government was committed to addressing the problem. The Central Committee and Council of Ministers passed a resolution titled “On Measures for a Fundamental Improvement of the Ecological and Sanitary Conditions in the Aral Sea Region” in September, 1988. Unfortunately, the Soviet economy was then in the process of unraveling. The same agencies and individuals that had created the crisis controlled the little funding available for environmental amelioration.

On June 23, 1990, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan presented a joint resolution calling for the Supreme Soviet to declare the Aral Sea basin a region of national calamity and to provide real help. In March, 1991, the Supreme Soviet finally responded by declaring the region a disaster area. By that time, any response requiring funding was out of the question. In December, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the task of amelioration fell to five newly independent republics, each with its own suite of social, environmental, and political problems.


The degradation of the Aral Sea basin ranks as one of the most egregious examples of creeping environmental problems being allowed to accumulate, despite repeated warnings, until they reach a level where restoring the original ecosystem is impossible and simply preventing further damage is prohibitively expensive.

Under the premiership of Leonid Brezhnev, a climate existed in which individual agencies responsible for monitoring environmental problems produced high-quality research but were unable to communicate with each other or the public. Decision makers who saw increasing cotton production as an economic panacea in Central Asia did not have access to data documenting environmental deterioration. The Karakalpaks, who initially bore the brunt of mismanagement, are a minority group in Uzbekistan, one of the poorest of the Soviet republics. Had local people had the ear of the central government in the Brezhnev era, steps could have been taken to arrest desertification.

In 1998, the World Bank, World Bank in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Development Program initiated a major effort to help restore the Aral region. By that time, the sea had lost 80 percent of its volume, and had split in two. Increasing irrigation efficiency in Kazakhstan and better regulation of hydroelectric resources in Kyrgyzstan restored flow in the Syr Dar’ya to a level where the North Aral, now separated from the larger southern portion by a dike, is refilling rapidly and supports a healthy introduced fish population. The ecological situation in the South Aral continues to deteriorate. Turkmenistan still relies on the Karakum Canal, with increasingly poorer efficiency. With a cotton-based economy and a skyrocketing population, Uzbekistan is poorly situated to introduce conservation measures. Afghanistan increasingly removes irrigation water from the Amu Dar’ya. In common with other arid regions, Central Asia will probably experience increasing evapotranspiration and water-supply problems associated with global warming.

The Aral Sea crisis holds lessons for the rest of the world on the importance of close monitoring of regional ecology and early intervention, even at the expense of economic development, to forestall irreversible environmental collapse. Analogous conditions exist in the Western United States, where environmental warnings, although openly disseminated and discussed, too frequently fail to translate into national policy. Soviet Union;environmental policy Aral Sea;salinization Ecological disasters

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glantz, Michael H., ed. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Collection of authoritative scholarly papers, including two on health issues and one on the Karakum Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glantz, Michael H., Alvin Z. Rubenstein, and Igor Zonin. “Tragedy in the Aral Sea Basin: Looking Back to Plan Ahead.” In Central Asia: Its Strategic Importance and Future Prospects, edited by Halik Malez. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Good for facts and a detailed chronology including the political background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Micklin, Philip. “The Aral Sea Crisis and Its Future: An Assessment in 2006.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 47, no. 5 (2006): 546-567. Good for an update on the political situation and reclamation efforts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, Richard. “Coming to Grips with the Aral Sea’s Grim Legacy.” Science 284, no. 5411 (1999): 30-33. Gives a chronological account and outlines the World Bank’s proposals for restoration.

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Categories: History