High and Dry: Big Government Causes Big Problems, and in Central Asia, Soviet-Style Big Government Destroyed the Aral Sea

Article excerpt

The scene is nothing short of apocalyptic. A fleet of fishing vessels, seven or eight in all, lies immobile in the desert sands of central Asia. Most of the ships are in tight formation, seeming to jockey for position in the center of a curious channel cut through the desert. The fleet is silent and ghostly, floating in an ocean of sand where once they plied the blue-green waters of an immense inland sea. At one time these ships hauled tons of fresh fish to local canneries. Now they serve as monuments to one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.

The landlocked fleet is all that remains of the vibrant fishing industry that was once supported by central Asia's great Aral Sea. As recently as 1960, the salty Aral covered a surface area larger than that of Lake Michigan. Prior to the 1980s, fishermen brought in an average catch of almost 40,000 tons per year of pikeperch and other commercially useful fish. That fishery has disappeared just as quickly as the lake itself. According to data from the University of California-San Diego, today the Aral Sea has lost as much as 75 percent of its former volume and its surface area has shrunk by 50 percent. Imagine not being able to see Lake Michigan from Chicago, and you have some idea of what it is like to live in one of the Aral's former port cities like Moynak or Aralsk.

Researchers point out that water levels in the Aral fluctuate widely over large spans of time. But the current drying of the Aral is unique. Left to its own devices, the Aral Sea would today be just as large as it was in 1960. Instead, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s Soviet government planners deliberately destroyed the lake, leaving behind an ecological wasteland. The destruction of the Aral Sea was man-made, and it occurred because, in the Soviet system, no one owned the area around the lake. And without private ownership of the region, there was no incentive to preserve the ecology of the region.

Bone Dry

The town of Aralsk in the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan once boasted a busy harbor on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. Now the harbor is dry. Tourists to the region can walk on the dry bed of the harbor amidst a few rusting ships that the retreating waters left behind. In his travel blog, writer Joel Stern described the scene during his recent visit to the area. "In the evening, we took a stroll into what used to be the port," Stern wrote. "You can walk right out over the salt-crystalised sand which is littered with old sea shells and empty beer cans and contains a number of rusting ship hulks, now stranded by the sea which has long since departed. Walking out into the port gave me a real sense of devastation. A sense that something has died here or more appropriately has been murdered."

The murderer was the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, government planners decided that the region near the Aral Sea would become the new Soviet cotton belt. This decision sealed the sea's fate. In most areas where it is grown, cotton requires substantial irrigation. This is particularly true of the region around the Aral Sea, where average yearly rainfall is approximately only one-third that received by the state of Georgia. …