Once the fourth largest lake in the world the Aral Sea, which straddles the border with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to mismanagement of water resources and has resulted in serious ecological, economic and health problems.
Tuberculoses affect one in two. Lung, kidney, and dental problems are said to have increased as a result of sand mixed with salt carried by the winds. An economy dependent on the fisheries industry was wiped out as virtually all native fish species have died. The disappearing of the Aral sea is one of the worst environmental disasters of our time. Due to excessive water usage along its contributing rivers, the Syr-Darya and Arnu-Darya, the lake has slowly disappeared taking with it most if the area's diverse ecosystem.
The 'Northern' or small Aral Sea as the Kazakhstan Sea near Aralsk is called is now approximately one fifth of its original size with extremely high levels of salt. The sea has split into two seas and is suspected to split into a third.
The water originates in the Pamirs and Tian Sian mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and then passes through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on its way to the Aral Sea. This water is mainly consumed by thirsty crops such as cotton and rice planted in virtual desert conditions.
Cotton and other crops are such an important part of some of the economies in the region that the water is too precious for them to give back. The best hope for compromise is for the countries involved to try and develop less wasteful irrigation practices with less thirsty crops and for what is left of the lake to reach a sustainable level and stop shrinking even further.
It is feared that Lake Balkash, Asia's 4th largest lake, on the eastern side of Kazakhstan will face a similar fate as the Aral sea, if water practices remain the same and cooperation with the Chinese from where the water originates, is not reached.