The Aral Sea used to be the world’s fourth-largest lake, but it has been reduced to roughly 5 percent of its previous volume. The environmental devastation is geopolitical, and about to get much worse.
After World War II, Nasserite Egypt found itself at odds with rapidly retreating European empires. The Americans had not yet deployed forces in force in the Mediterranean, so Nasser believed that it would soon be the Soviets who would dominate the era. He sought, and achieved, an alliance with Moscow. Soon after, the USSR began absorbing much of Egypt’s cotton crop to service the empire’s textile needs.
Fast-forward to the Camp David Accords of the late 1970s, when Egypt ejected Soviet advisors and informally joined the American alliance network. This did more than deny the Soviets port access in the Mediterranean – it also redirected Egyptian cotton from the Soviet industry to the global market.
Bereft of cotton, the Soviets constructed a grand canalworks throughout much of arid Central Asia. Soon, cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan replaced the Egyptian supplies. However, the plantations always drew more water than the region’s rivers could sustain, and the Aral Sea – where all of the region’s rivers drain – began to dry up. As of 2014, the Aral Sea essentially is gone.
And worse news is to come. By its sheer size, the Aral Sea used to moderate the region’s climate. Without the Aral, the entire region is becoming hotter and dryer, which is rapidly melting the glaciers that create the rivers that supply the Aral Sea. At some point within the next decade, all of those glaciers will be gone, as will the rivers, as will the sea. Most of the 40 million Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakhs and Uzbeks who depend upon that water then will be faced with a simple choice: die, leave or fight over what remains.
For more on how the Aral Sea’s destruction will shape the region’s future, see Chapter 10 of The Accidental Superpower.