The Aral Sea is being depleted due to the effects of climate change, causing harm to the local population's means of living.

The Aral Sea is being depleted due to the effects of climate change, causing harm to the local population’s means of living.

Nafisa Bayniyazova and her family have persevered through toxic dust storms, political unrest, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to continue their livelihood of farming melons, pumpkins, and tomatoes around the Aral Sea in Muynak, Uzbekistan.

Bayniyazova, 50, has spent most of her life near Muynak, in northwestern Uzbekistan, tending the land. Farm life was sometimes difficult but generally reliable and productive. Even while political upheaval from the Soviet Union’s collapse transformed the world around them, the family’s farmland yielded crops, with water steadily flowing through canals coming from the Aral and surrounding rivers.

Currently, Bayniyazova and her fellow residents are dealing with an insurmountable situation: the effects of climate change. This is causing the Aral, which was once a vital resource for the local population for many years, to rapidly deteriorate.

The Aral Sea has significantly diminished over time. Once a vibrant blue expanse teeming with aquatic life, it was once among the biggest inland bodies of water worldwide. However, it has now shrunk to less than 25% of its original size.

A major reason for its destruction can be attributed to human interventions and failed agricultural schemes, compounded by the effects of climate change. The summers are now hotter and more prolonged, while the winters are shorter and bitterly cold. According to experts and locals like Bayniyazova, water has become scarce and has a high salinity level that inhibits plant growth.

Bayniyazova stated that everyone strives to find water because without it, there can be no existence.


Editors have written this as the second part of a series about the Aral Sea, which used to be very large. The article discusses the experiences of people who have lived and worked near the sea, as well as the impact of climate change and efforts to restore the area. The AP went to both sides of the Aral, in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to record how the land has changed.


For many years, the Aral Sea was sustained by rivers that depended heavily on glacial melting, and it flowed through the landlocked countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The sea was home to fish that grew up to several meters in length, and they were caught and sold throughout the Soviet Union.

The area experienced economic growth, and numerous individuals from various parts of Asia and Europe migrated to the Aral Sea’s banks, seeking employment opportunities in industries such as canning and high-end resorts.

Currently, the scarce remaining settlements remain tranquil on the previous floor of the Aral, which is technically designated as a lake since it does not have a direct connection to the ocean. However, locals and authorities refer to it as a sea. The area is often plagued by dust storms and abandoned ships rust in the desert.

During the 1920s, the Soviet government initiated a project to utilize the sea for cultivating cotton and other profitable crops through irrigation. This resulted in a significant decrease in the size of the sea by half by the 1960s, but proved successful for the growth of these crops. However, by 1987, the water level had dropped to an alarming low, causing the sea to split into two separate bodies of water – the northern and southern seas, located in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The United Nations Development Program states that the collapse of the Aral Sea is the most catastrophic event of the 20th century. They attribute the disappearance of the Aral Sea to the decline of land quality and the spread of deserts, as well as issues such as lack of drinking water, malnutrition, and declining health.

Various entities, including national governments, international aid organizations, and local groups, have made attempts to preserve the sea. These efforts have had different levels of effectiveness, ranging from planting shrubs to hinder the advancement of sand dunes to constructing costly dams.

However, according to experts, climate change has only hastened the demise of the Aral and will further worsen the hardships faced by its residents.

Without the moderating influence of a large body of water to regulate the climate, dust storms began to blow through towns. They whipped toxic chemicals from a shuttered Soviet weapons testing facility and fertilizer from farms into the lungs and eyes of residents, contributing to increased rates of respiratory diseases and cancer, according to the U.N.

Strong gusts of wind led to the engulfing of entire towns by sand dunes, and deserted structures were filled with sand. Inhabitants evacuated the area. As a result, twelve different types of fish became extinct, and businesses closed down.

Madi Zhasekenov, a 64-year-old, observed the decrease in diversity within his town’s population.

According to Zhasekenov, who was the former director of the Aral Sea Fisherman Museum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, the fish factories shut down, the ships were left stranded in the harbor, and all the workers departed. This left only the local community.

According to a U.N. report, dust storms, higher global temperatures, and wind erosion are causing damage to the glaciers that are vital for the rivers of the sea. This is leading to an increase in water salinity and faster evaporation.

The report cautions that the melting of ice and alterations in river patterns could have negative effects on the availability of drinking water and food security. Additionally, hydropower facilities may also be impacted.

Last summer in Tastubek, a small village in the desert region of Kazakhstan, 33-year-old farmer Akerke Molzhigitova witnessed the grass her horses relied on wither and die due to intense heat. In an effort to rescue her horses, which were a crucial source of both income and sustenance, she relocated them 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.

However, many people lost their lives. In response, her neighbors chose to sell their animals out of fear for their own safety.

Adilbay and his companions fish in the remaining water pockets of the Aral Sea near Sudochye Lake in Uzbekistan. However, their catch is quite small.

Adilbay, 62, stands with outstretched arms, representing the diminishing size of fish over the years. He expresses, “There is nothing left now.”

The fish processing warehouse in the area closed down due to the decrease in water. Adilbay’s acquaintances and family members relocated to Kazakhstan in search of alternative employment opportunities.

Serzhan Seitbenbetov, a 36-year-old fisherman, and his companions have found success in this location. As he sat in his boat, gently swaying with the waves, he pulled in his net. In just one hour, he was able to catch a hundred fish, some measuring 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length. He stated that he would earn 5000 Kazakhstani Tenge ($10.50) from this catch, which is five times more than what he would make in a day as a taxi driver in a nearby city.

He stated that currently, all of the villagers are successful in their careers as fishermen.

In 2005, a dike project worth $86 million was completed by Kazakhstan with support from the World Bank.

The Kokaral Dam, also called a dike, spans a small section of the sea, storing and collecting water from the Syr Darya River. The dike exceeded expectations, resulting in a rise of more than 10 feet in water levels within seven months.

The World Bank reported that this initiative aided in the revival of nearby fisheries and had an impact on the microclimate, resulting in a rise in cloud cover and occurrences of rainstorms. The population also experienced growth.

Sarah Cameron, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who is writing a book about the Aral, stated that it was impossible to recreate the conditions before the water began to dry up.

Cameron stated that it does not provide equal support for the number of individuals and the fishing industry.

Constructing the barrier in Kazakhstan resulted in the separation of the southern portion of the sea in Uzbekistan from its essential water supply.

Unfortunately, Uzbekistan’s restoration endeavors have not been as prosperous. The government has not pursued major initiatives such as the Kokaral project. Instead, they have opted to plant saxaul trees and other resilient vegetation to combat erosion and decrease the intensity of dust storms.

The economy heavily relied on agriculture, particularly the export of cotton which requires a lot of water. Many individuals were employed in the cotton-picking industry, often for long periods of time through forced-labor initiatives, which additionally depleted water resources.

Experts have stated that the construction of gas production facilities in the Aral Sea’s former seabed, following the discovery of oil and natural gas, indicates that Uzbekistan has minimal concern for restoration efforts.

According to Kate Shields, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Rhodes College, there has been some effort to restore the area, but there was also a realization that the ocean may not return.

The AP’s inquiries about restoration efforts, water scarcity, and the impact of climate change were met with no response from government officials in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Bayniyazova’s family has dug an earthen well on their farm in Uzbekistan in order to preserve the remaining water.

Bayniyazova states that without water, human survival is extremely challenging and currently people are barely managing to survive.

Although she has no immediate plans to abandon her farm, she is aware that there may be more challenges in store. Her family may have to dig deeper wells and expect smaller harvests, but they are determined to hold onto the only way of life they have known.

She reassured, “We will put forth our best efforts, because what other option do we have?”


The Associated Press receives support from various private foundations for their coverage of climate and environmental issues. To learn more about AP’s climate initiative, please click here. The AP is solely responsible for all of the content.