Ecocide: The Murder of the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea didn't die, it was murdered.

-- Nazhbagin Musabaev, the governor of the Aralsk region, Kazakhstan

The destruction of what was once the 4th largest inland sea in the world was premeditated and deliberate, a result of Soviet central planners deciding to turn the deserts and arid steppes of Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan into cotton plantations for export. In order to do this, almost the entirety of the flows of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were diverted into irrigation works, and the Aral left to dry up:

The Aral in 1985:

The Aral in 1997 (1957 shoreline in red):

The Aral in 2003:

Consequently, the economy as well as the ecology of the area collapsed:

* Commercial fish catch went from roughly 48,000 metric tons in 1957 to zero in 1982.
* The canning industry that depended on the catch collapsed, which had at its peak employed 60,000 people.
* The muskrat farming industry died (along with the muskrats), which had previously provided skins and were used in making hats.
* Of the 24 species of fish that used to live in the sea, only one survives (barely) in the Small Sea in the north.
* 173 animal species once lived in the two delta regions; 38 remained by 1988.
* Due to the loss of moisture in the air from the sea, summer temperatures have increased ~1.5C and winter temperatures have dropped an equal amount. As a result, the growing season in the area has been reduced by 10 days, forcing some commercial farmers to switch from cotton to rice (further exacerbating the water demand in the region).
*From 1960 to 1980, livestock pastures and hayfield areas under cultivation had shrunk by 81%, and yields halved.
* By 2005, hay yields in the region were 22 times less than 1960 levels.
* Estimates of economic damage to the basin in 1982 was roughly 1.5-2 billion rubles annually.

What once was described as an area with Africa-like biodiversity is now a toxic salt pan wasteland, subject to clouds of aerosolized salt & pesticide runoff, some of which has been found as far east as the Siberian Arctic, as well as the fertile valley up upland Uzbekistan (the dust is also collecting on the high mountain glaciers, reducing albedo and increasing melt-off, threatening the long-term source of water for the entire region.) On top of the economic and ecologic devastation, the concentration of toxic chemicals and minerals has led to an increased of incidence cancers, lung disease, and infant mortality in the Aral basin 30 times higher than other equivalent regions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And even this bill of particulars is just the tip of the iceberg for measuring the total devastation wrought by the destruction of the Aral.

But at least the two 'stans got what was intended- a huge cotton export sector (as well as extensive rice production). But then, even setting aside the immense cost of the disaster to the west of the producing regions, these crops come at a high cost to maintain above and beyond their thirsty natures, as according to Soviet figures in the 60's, while usual Soviet agriculture used ~25 kg/ha of pesticides and fertilizers, the cotton fields of the 'stans required ~550 kg/ha; even with modern fertilizer efficiencies introduced since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is clear that it takes a very large amount of effort to get these ill-suited crops to even grow in Central Asia. It is hard to imagine such an export industry arising naturally in Uzbekistan, despite the value of the crop on the global market; indeed, prior to the Soviet developments no such cultivation was even dreamed of in the region.

That environmental degradation of all sorts was rampant under Communism is a fairly well understood truth. But why the Aral tragedy in particular? So given the immense value of the Aral sea's commercial activities, how is it that the central planners got the cost-benefit analysis so wrong as to think that cotton cultivation would possibly come out ahead? The answer is an explicit illustration of Mises' argument against socialism in general; the central planners who devised the demise of the Aral had literally no means to rationally or accurately calculate the cost of letting the sea die because there were neither internal markets nor property rights among those dependent upon the sea.

Quoting extensively from Philip Mickin's 1988 paper on the Aral:

During planning for a major expansion of irrigation in the Aral Sea basin, conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, it was predicted that this would reduce inflow to the sea and substantially reduce its size. At the time, a number of experts saw this as a worthwhile tradeoff: a cubic meter of river water used for irrigation would bring far more value than the same cubic meter delivered to the Aral Sea. They based this calculation on a simple comparison of economic gains from irrigated agriculture against tangible economic benefits from the sea. Indeed, the ultimate shrinkage of the Aral to a residual brine lake as all its inflow was devoted to agriculture and other economic needs was viewed as both desirable and inevitable.

These experts largely dismissed the possibility of significant adverse environmental consequences accompanying recession. For example, some scientists claimed the sea had little or no impact on the climate of adjacent territory and, therefore, its shrinkage would not perceptibly alter meteorological conditions beyond the immediate shore zone. They also foresaw little threat of large quantities of salt blowing from the dried bottom and damaging agriculture in adjacent areas. This theory rested, in the first place, on the assumption that during the initial phases of the Aral's drying only calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate would be deposited on the former bottom. Although friable and subject to deflation, these salts have low plant toxicity. Second, it was assumed that the more harmful compounds, chiefly sodium sulfate and sodium chloride, which would be deposited as the sea continued to shrink and salinize, would not be blown off because of the formation of a durable crust of sodium chloride. Some optimists even suggested the dried bottom would be suitable for farming.

That they could come to such a conclusion is because unlike most of the activity at and around the Aral Sea, cotton can be traded worldwide and thanks to the information aggregating and calculating power of market prices, the central planners had an accurate view of what one side of the equation was worth; and precisely because there were no internal markets to put valuation on the commercial fishing of the Aral, the recreational usages, and other non-exportable activities, the planners had to rely on completely arbitrary valuations on the other hand. That the push for cotton cultivation was also driven by the insane desire for autarky (er, 'self sufficiency') is just bitter icing on the cake.

The moral of this story is that for lack of property rights & trade, a huge ecosystem (and the health of millions of people) was sacrificed. Let us all keep this in mind when latter day pundits claim that property rights and trade are enemies of the environment.

(Postscript- There's a slight glimmer of hope, for the tiny northern remnant at least.)

Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union by Philip P. Mickin
Environment in Central Asia page on the Aral Sea
The Aral Sea Disaster by Guy Phipps
The Aral Sea Tragedy by Paul Welsh
Desertification in the Near Aral Sea Region and Population Migration by Sergey Myagkov
Aral Sea Wikipedia Entry

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this sucks

this sucks

It very horrible to listen

It very horrible to listen such an disastrous phenomenon about Aral Sea done by Soviet Union for its commercial and money incoming purpose.Its the most shameful aspect for the whole in evansville

Oh my...

I think that it's just sad for the aral sea to die just like that. Yes, it is true that it was murdered by the people who wanted to make some changes for the sake of a better world or something but those people just don't know when to stop. This is my first time knowing that the aral sea used to be the 4th largest inland sea in the world so thanks for the information by the way.