It’s one thing to kill a lake with pollution. The U.S. almost did that with Lake Erie in the 1960s. It’s quite another to take a lake, once the world’s fourth largest in surface area, and make it go away. The Aral Sea used to cover more of the earth’s surface than four of the five North American Great Lakes. It was larger than the state of West Virginia. But take a brutal, single-minded dictatorship, add seventy years of abuse, and the Aral is almost gone.

Straddling the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea stood as the centerpiece of Josef Stalin’s grand scheme to make the Soviet Union into (among other things) a cotton-growing empire. For a time, it worked, as the Aral’s main water sources were diverted to turn the region’s dry, alkaline soils into the land where cotton was czar.

By the 1970s, with its feeder rivers cut off, the Aral had shrunk dramatically.  Parched areas of the lakebed whipped up toxic dust storms, mixing the leftover salt from the soil with the chemical-intensive residues from the cotton farms. “Our earth no longer smells like soil but like chemicals,” said one resident quoted in Murray Feshbach’s and Alfred Friendly’s 1993 book, Ecocide in the USSR.


Tony Kolb, a public health expert who worked the region for the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, said the environmental damage is already done, but a major public health risk continues from the persistent organic pollutants left behind by Stalin’s agrarian revolution.

“There was a tremendous lack of will to deal with the problem,” added Erika Weinthal of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “I could not express any hope at restoring the Aral Sea.”

Today, despite quixotic efforts to revive the Aral, it’s almost gone. Towns that once thrived with freshwater fisheries and lakeside resorts are now more than an hour’s drive from the shallow remnants of the Aral.

A minor victory seems to be in the making in the far northern part of what used to be the Aral. The Syr Darya River, one of the main inflows blocked off by Stalin’s master plan, is again bringing water to a small section of the Aral.

There’s nothing even remotely as appalling going on in U.S. waterways. At least not since L.A.’s thirst for water drained the much-smaller Owens Lake in the early 20th century. But the Aral may still hold a potent lesson for many areas of the U.S. already on the verge of running dry. The states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been in a decade-long, three-way court battle over the meager supply in the Chattahoochee River and in Atlanta’s principal watering hole, man-made Lake Lanier. Lanier is at an all-time low after several years of Southeastern drought. In the West, where we’ve built fast-growing mega-cities in deserts that can’t sustain them, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and L.A. are almost out of options. The Colorado River, drawn down by those three metro areas, dries up before it reaches the ocean in all but the wettest years. It takes a bit longer without a brutal, single-minded dictatorship, but even without one, we just may repeat a few of Josef Stalin’s mistakes. 


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)