Attention Californians: If your state’s record-breaking drought hasn’t grabbed your attention yet, maybe watching the Aral Sea dry up over the course of the past 14 years will be a future shock foretold.
These images taken by NASA’s Terra satellite show just how rapidly the 1,274-square-mile Aral Sea—technically a vast lake—has dried up because of drought and water diversions.
Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral Sea, which straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, began shrinking in the 1960s. That’s when the flow of two rivers that fed the Aral began to decline as water was diverted to grow cotton and other crops in the desert. Drought over the past decade has accelerated the transformation of the Aral Sea into the Aral wasteland.
“As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed,” according to a report that accompanied NASA’s satellite images. “The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lake bed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.”
California did much of the same more than a half century ago when it built a system of giant canals and dams to divert water from the northern part of the state to make the Southern California desert bloom with hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton, rice, and other thirsty crops.
The state has no equivalent of the Aral Sea. Its largest freshwater body, Lake Tahoe, is unlikely to dry up. But water levels in Shasta Lake and other reservoirs are at record lows. Drought and the diversion of rivers to supply water to farms and cities has left California with a two-year supply of stored water if the rains don’t come soon. The state, meanwhile, is depleting its groundwater reserves at an unsustainable rate.
Maybe it’s time to look east to see just how quickly environmental collapse can come.