IN the 1930s, economic planners sitting in thick-walled stone buildings in Moscow set in motion a chain of events that has almost killed an entire sea.
In order to create vast cotton fields in the drylands of Soviet Central Asia, the planners had long irrigation canals dug, fed by the waters of two rivers, the Amu Daria and the Syr Daria, that flow into the inland Aral Sea. In the statistics of the central planners, the project was a huge success. The cotton harvests grew until the Soviet Union became the world's second largest cotton exporter, after China.
But the statistics did not show the effect of diverting most of the river flow into the Aral Sea.
By 1989, the sea was receiving only one-eighth the level of water as in 1960. Its water level had dropped by 47 feet, more than a quarter, and its volume had shrunk by two-thirds. Once the size of North America's Lake Huron, its total area diminished by 44 percent.
The shores of the sea receded, leaving fishing villages tens of miles from the shore. A new desert was created around the sea, with salt strewn in massive dust storms across a vast area.
At the same time, Moscow's demands for cotton cultivation were met with saturation use of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides that flowed into the rivers and canals. The population around the sea, deprived of clean drinking water and living on poisoned soil, experienced rising rates of disease and infant mortality.
"The problem of the Aral Sea is very simple," says Igor Zonn, a specialist on the subject, "The Aral Sea will be dead, not soon and not completely, but it will be dead."
Dr. Zonn and fellow Russian scientist Nikita Glazorsky, head of the Institute of Geology and until recently deputy environment minister of Russia, have been working for a long …