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History of the Aral Sea and the Tragedy of Bad Politics

The Aral Sea, formerly the biggest saltwater lake in Central Asia and the fourth-largest lake in the world, sits on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Sea basin intersects all five Central Asian states, including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Today, the remnants of the sea are seen in parts of the region. The Aral Sea is about “600 km east of the Caspian Sea” (Kumar 2002). The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya are the two major rivers associated with the Aral Sea. In the 1960s, the sea was home to about a quarter of the fisheries in Kazakhstan.

Since the 1960s, the Aral Sea’s water levels have declined for various reasons. One primary reason for drying the Aral Sea has been the widespread irrigational projects that started during the Stalinist collectivization projects in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

aral sea water levels timeline
Timeline of water levels in the Aral Sea Basin

The water from the two main rivers fed by the Aral Sea has been diverted to cotton plantation irrigational networks. These projects included the construction of a 20,000-mile canal network, about 45 dams, and over 80 water reservoirs built for cotton and wheat plantations.

Soon after the 1960s, the “sea began to retreat” from its initial positions. Even as the sea levels receded substantially, the people and the government did not seem to have cared for it, as the cotton plantation was profitable then.

With time, there was an increased salinity. Soon, the fish began to die out. By the late 1980s, the sea was separated into the Small Aral and Large Aral. What transpired over the years was the greatest humanmade climate catastrophe in the history of humankind.

The “Quiet Chernobyl”

Earning the “Quiet Chernobyl” moniker, the Aral Sea has receded its water levels over the past decades (Glantz, Rubinstein, and Zonn 1993). When the water began reducing, the region was under the control of the Soviet Union. The multifaceted irrigation practices in agriculture, fisheries, and dam construction led to the gradual decline of water levels in the Aral Sea.

The United Nations Development Programme called the Aral Sea the “most staggering disaster of the twentieth century” (Grabish 1991). It is a prime example of what unsustainable growth—i.e., economic growth that disregards ecological concerns—can produce.

Once a thriving place for fisheries, it has now been converted into a place without hope, the people around the coasts of the Aral Sea face enormous health issues, including anaemia, high infant and maternal mortality, and respiratory diseases (Grabish 1991).

Studying the Aral Sea and the Politics of the Soviet Era

It is crucial to investigate how the Aral Sea disappeared because it enables a critical evaluation of the consequences of bad economics. In this paper, I examine the economic causes of the receding water levels from the Aral Sea. Then, I will critically assess the need to accommodate ecological concerns while dealing with economic development.

This paper argues that an economy without ecology is doomed to fail. For this purpose, first, I will provide a historical overview of the Aral Sea and data regarding the receding water levels. Then, I will discuss the State’s role (in this case, the Soviet Union) and economy in causing ecological degradation.

After that, I will discuss the impact of the environmental disaster of the Aral Sea and its effects on human lives. Here, we discuss climate migration, health crises, child labour and the infrastructural deficiencies in the region. Finally, I will critically assess the perils of economic development without environmental concerns.

We will discuss alternative development models that can pave the way for a new political economy that accounts for ecology.

Aral Sea: A Historical Background

Aral refers to the “sea of islands” (Precoda 1991), as the sea consists of about 1,100 islands. In 1960, the Aral Sea’s surface was about 53 metres above sea level, covering an area of over 68,000 square km.

It stretched about 435 km between the north and the south and about 290 km between the East and the West (“Aral Sea | Description, History, Map, Shrinking, & Facts | Britannica” n.d.). Until the 1960s, Aral Sea water levels were affected by the evaporation that persisted by the climatic conditions. The rising temperatures led to increased evaporation.

Early Kazakhs practised small-scale agricultural practices and fisheries for their consumption. However, the “economy was centred on livestock” (Wheeler 2017). Given the society was centred around patrilineal clan groups, kinship ties governed livestock exchange.

Only those economically weaker groups, with nothing to eat and no animals to herd, practised fishing. Fish itself did not necessarily constitute a significant livelihood practice. It appears that they were not caught for trade, as the majority were consumed right away (Wheeler 2021).

Kazakhs eventually started fishing for the market. In the winter, fish were exported by caravan overland to other parts of the Soviet Union (Boomer et al. 2000). This phenomenon also gave rise to new relationships. The sea itself gained economic value. Kazakhs who lost their animals were forced to adopt this vision.

The period of 1880s and the Aral Sea

Additionally, the sea came under the ambit of the government in 1886—the multifaceted regulations, licensing, and restrictions on fishing (Plotnikov et al. 2014). It was one of the first attempts at regulating the fisheries and protecting fish stocks in the Aral Basin.

The permit system was introduced to regulate fishing in Syr Darya. However, fish stock preservation and fisheries control continue to be inadequate. With the introduction of the Tashkent railway service in 1905, commercial fishing developed rapidly. Large quantities of fish were supplied to different places using the rail lines.

This enabled the rise of fishing in the Aral Basin. With this rose the new class of fishing entrepreneurs. The Aral Sea became a central fishing hub (Micklin, Aladin, and Plotnikov 2014). Wheeler writes:

First, the market, then the railway reconfigured entanglements with the environment; fish were increasingly valued as economic resources. Nearby salt deposits provided the raw material for curing fish.

Russian industrialists opened ice houses and plants around the sea for smoking and curing Aral fish. New dependencies emerged as fish integrated local populations into imperial markets (Wheeler 2017).

The 1910s and the Aral Sea

The fishing in the basin of the Aral Sea grew rapidly, and by 1915 the catches reached 483,000 centners (Micklin, Aladin, and Plotnikov 2014, 55–57). With the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent Stalinist era, all the large fishing enterprises were nationalized in 1918.

For the Bolsheviks, the Aral Sea provided an object of economic value, “in exploiting its value to the full, people were to be freed from the bonds of debt and exploitation” (Wheeler 2017). The collectivization period itself brought several climatic upheavals in the Aral Basin.

However, between 1911 and 1960, the Aral water balance was relatively stable (Micklin, Aladin, and Plotnikov 2014, 111).

aral sea basin
Yusup Kamalov, standing in what 40 years ago was a deep seaport, heads the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea, a local non-governmental organization based in Nukus. ©Eric Hilger.

The subsequent period since 1960 has seen the beginnings of the “modern recession”. Some calculations show that the water receding level due to evaporation of the sea averaged 54.3 km3/year, and the water discharge from the two main rivers upto 41.5 km3/year (Micklin, Aladin, and Plotnikov 2014).

Between 1960 and 1970, the water level dropped from 53.3 to 51.4 m. Between 1971 and 1980, the water level dropped from 51.1 to 45.8 m.

The 1980s and the Aral Sea

Between 1980 and 1989, the water level from both the seas (Small and Big Sea) declined from 45.2 to roughly about 38 m. In each phase, irrigation and water diversion from the two main rivers to cotton plantations was the major reason for the water recession.

Today, much of the Aral Sea has dried up. As a result of which, people throughout the region have migrated from the region. What was once a “big oasis in the desert” has now assimilated with the desert. There is no water left. Stalin’s collectivization programme caused the death of millions of Kazakhs. The subsequent Soviet policies caused widespread dissent among people (Kumar 2002).

The tragic demise of the Aral Sea began in the 1960s. It was during the time of the Soviet Union that widespread economic projects, multiple dams, and large networks of irrigation channels were built to facilitate agricultural growth.

The Aral Sea basin’s economy, health, and ecosystem have been severely damaged, affecting millions due to such projects. These projects were ill-conceived and were completed in haste (Kumar 2002).

Restoration Efforts in the Aral Basin since the 1990s

The Aral Sea was turned into a dry, toxic salt plain within twenty years, from being the fourth largest inland sea. The average amount of water entering the sea throughout the 1980s was about 7 billion cubic metres.

Only 1 to 5 billion cubic metres per year have recently entered the sea. Since 1960, 75% of the lake’s volume has been lost; by 2015, there are grave concerns that it may dry up (Kumar 2002).

Another estimate claims that by 1997, the Aral Sea had declined to 10 percent of its original size, splitting into four lakes: the North Aral Sea, the East and West sides of the South Aral Sea, and Barsakelmes Lake (Micklin and Aladin 2008).

Aral Sea in 1989 and Aral Sea in 2004
Aral Sea in 1989 vs Aral Sea in 2004

In recent times, there have been efforts to restore the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan has partially restored the northern Aral. It built an earthen dike in the early 1990s to stop water from draining to the south, but a catastrophic breakdown destroyed it in April 1999.

However, the work showed that the salinity could be reduced and the water level could be raised, leading Kazakhstan and the World Bank to fund an $85 million solution—a 13-km earthen barrier with a gated concrete dam for water release, which was finished in November 2005.

This enabled the water levels to rise from 40 to 42 metres. Salinity dropped drastically. The fishery was partially resumed. But, expecting the Aral Basin to reach 1960 levels is unrealistic and distressful.

Impact on Aral Basin Due to Economic Policies of the Soviet Union

During the period of the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea Basin was seen as a limitless water source. The Stalinist collectivization project initially aimed at settling the population as agrarian communities. Now that the land was considered good for agriculture, the Soviet regime began encouraging the plantation of cotton and wheat in the region.

The land was used extensively for cotton cultivation with the introduction of new irrigation technologies. In 1918, Lenin declared that more cotton should be from “Turkestan”. It was followed by the desire to control the rural population and their cultivation practices.

Cotton and wheat had always been cultivated in Central Asia, but when these two goods became strategic for the Soviet Empire, problems broke out: to produce more and more of them, there was an overexploitation of the lands and waters of Central Asia, with serious environmental consequences (Fusco and Quagliarotti 2016, 301)

This desire largely emanated from the notion that the State knows the best—in this case, Stalin knows the best for the Soviet Union. Under Stalin’s direction, the Soviet water ministry launched a significant water diversion project in the late 1930s to irrigate the steppes of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to make them suitable for cotton farming (Kumar 2002).

The Collectivisation of Agricultural Land in the Soviet Union

The introduction of collectivization of the agrarian section in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1940 aimed at collectively controlling the farmlands. At the core of policy was the notion of “collectives” replacing the individual as owners and workers.

These collectives would work to increase the food supply for urban society, supply raw materials for factories, and export agricultural outputs. By the 1930s, over 90 percent of the land held in the Soviet Union became collectivized.

With this, the region also had several reforms and technological changes to facilitate collectivization. The construction of a canal around the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan in 1939 marked the beginning of the first significant irrigation project.

During the same period, large amounts of water were diverted from the Syr Darya River towards the Kizil-Orda in Kazakhstan, Tashkent, and Uzbekistan for agricultural usage (Kumar 2002). Stalin’s collectivization ultimately failed.

It caused widespread famines, causing the deaths of people between 4 and 7 million (Himka 2013). Stalin’s Collectivisation hurt the Kazakhs, and it is estimated that about a million Kazakhs died or fled the region due to that period. As a result, cotton production did not increase in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Dams, Reservoirs and the Cotton Monoculture

After Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev continued the same policy in Central Asia, converting even more arable lands to cotton cultivation. Some large-scale canals completed between the late 1950s and 1970 to support these extensions of the cotton monoculture are the Bahr-i Tajik Reservoir serving Tajikistan, the Chu Canal and the Mirzachol Sahra irrigation network in Kyrgyzstan, and QaraQum Canal from Amu Darya to Ashkhabad (Kumar 2002).

In the early 1960s, cotton was elevated to “white gold”, as it was called. Amu Darya River was diverted from feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert in an attempt to produce cotton plantations. The cotton industry has significantly depleted water supplies in the area. Midway through the 1970s, the Soviet Union produced 25% of the cotton consumed worldwide.

Cotton Monoculture in the Aral Sea Region

The Aral Sea has almost completely dried up due to intensive water extraction for cotton production, leaving behind irreparable ecological harm. Cotton cultivation was sustained by the large-scale construction of irrigation canals that began in the 1930s and significantly increased in the 1960s.

Since many of these canals were poorly built, it allowed for greater leakage and evaporation. For instance, 75 percent of the water from the QuraQum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, was wasted (Micklin and Aladin 2008). The institution of cotton monoculture, whereby the complete lifestyle of people focused on cultivating cotton, caused widespread destruction of people’s livelihoods in the region.

The Soviets were unsurprised by the lake’s disappearance as they had long anticipated it. For instance, Aleksandr Asarin of the Hydroproject Institute noted that the lake was doomed in 1964, stating, “It was a component of the five-year plans that the Politburo and the Council of Ministers both accepted.

Nobody at a lower level would dare to voice a different opinion, even if it meant the Aral Sea’s fate” (Perry 2013). Some Soviet experts even ascribed to the inevitability of the Aral Sea’s evaporation, claiming that it was “nature’s error”. Water has been chronically wasted and overused in Central Asia. Up to 37% of the total water supplied was lost due to poor management and antiquated technology.

This waste is particularly severe in Uzbekistan, where it is believed that 60% of the water diverted into the nation’s 28,000 kilometres of canals and pipes for agriculture never makes it to the fields (Glantz, Rubinstein, and Zonn 1993). The critical wastage of water due to poor management has resulted in the loss of biodiversity, widespread migration, and loss of human lives.

Human Impact of the Aral Sea Crisis

There is a saying in the Aral Sea region: “If every specialist brought with them a bucket of water, the Sea would be filled again” (Small, Van, and Upshur 2001). The desiccation of the Aral Sea has caused significant problems for human societies in the region. One of the immediate effects of drying the Aral Sea Basin has been the migration of people from the region.

In the region around the Aral Sea, the situation and the effects of environmental refugees are distinct, especially because individuals who have fled did so because they had the chance, the knowledge, and the desire to do so and adapt to a new way of life.

The population left behind has even fewer capabilities, skills, and potential to deal with the problem or, at the very least, adapt to it, which is cause for concern (Micklin 1988).  

Salination of Water in the Aral Sea

The water became unusable with the salinization of water and the receding of sea levels. The livelihood that depended primarily on the fisheries and agricultural activities had to move to different locations for better living conditions.

The 60,000 jobs purportedly associated with the Aral fisheries in the 1950s have vanished directly and indirectly. While many former fishing communities have been abandoned, the decline of commercial fishing has also caused the movement of people from the Aral Basin to other areas (Micklin 1988).

It is a tragedy of the commons—a phenomenon when limited individuals use up all the economic resources that were to be shared by society. The desiccation had further caused a health crisis in the region. Even worse, there is a lack of access to clean drinking water for most people.

The Aral Sea is now considerably more contaminated by chemical runoff from agricultural areas, making it unfit for human and livestock consumption. Since the cotton plantation required excessive amounts of pesticides, the run-off of pests into the drinking water outlets caused greater worry for people and their health (Kumar 2002).

Health Crisis in the Aral Sea Basin

The desiccation of the Aral Sea has dried 54,000 square kilometres of seabed, which is now filled with salinized sand particles and pesticides. The local population suffers from “high levels of respiratory illnesses, throat and oesophageal cancer, and digestive disorders” due to the consumption of salinized water.

The State of the current medical system and health infrastructure must also be taken into account, in addition to the epidemiologic problems of the area. Essential medicines and medical supplies are lacking in the Aral Sea region’s hospitals and health facilities. Despite being present and ready to work, healthcare personnel lack the tools necessary to conduct their tasks well.

To treat sickness and improve health services, they need access to modern international protocols and instruments, including efficient health information systems and public health facilities (Small, Van, and Upshur 2001).

In addition, the varieties of fish in the region have also reached extinction (Micklin and Aladin 2008). The 20 fish species in the sea, which were crucial for the region’s economy and nutrition, have perished.

Cotton Production in Uzbekistan and Child Labour

In Uzbekistan, cotton production is still seen as a major produce. But the conditions of people working on the cotton plantation are said to be the most exploitative. Until recently, it was said to have state-sponsored forced child labour—a breach of human rights.

In March 2022, the International Labour Organisation declared that Uzbekistan is finally free from “systemic child labour” (“Uzbek Cotton Is Free from Systemic Child Labour and Forced Labour” 2022). In summation, the Aral Sea Basin environmental disaster has had a devastating impact on the area’s human ecology: millions of people rely on contaminated soils, water, and air, while agricultural employment prospects are under pressure in a setting of rural population increase, in regions with relatively small sections of cultivated land.

Societies find it difficult to balance between economy and ecology. In economics, we are taught “opportunity cost”—the value of gaining something at the cost of something else. It is a trade-off. You can’t have it both ways, so you give up one. Governments treat economic development as something that comes before—and at the cost of—ecological concerns.

Therefore, they treat ecological concerns as a trade-off for economic growth. But such an understanding is misplaced—and in this paper, I will make a case that it is counterproductive. In this regard, the Greens provide a critical lens to examine the international political economy.

Promethean Logic of Ecology

This paper argues that the Soviet Union administrators took the “Promethean” worldview in understanding the ecological relationship with the economy. They believed that there is a constant supply of natural wealth and that the exploitation of nature is necessary to increase human capital and benefit larger humankind.

One of the prominent theorists of this school is Julian Simon, who proposed that humans apply their minds to exploit natural resources.

The human mind, he noted, marks man’s mastery over nature. It is evident, in the case of the Soviet Union, that the policies targeted at creating economic growth subsequently failed and caused great human devastation in the process.

The drying of the Aral Sea has caused environmental problems, including increased salinization of the soil, salt-filled dust storms, destruction of fisheries, waterlogging, and loss of biodiversity (Kumar 2002).

Ecological Degradation and the Soviet Policies

The Soviet policies around the Aral Sea were ill-conceived. They were created to facilitate the growth of cotton plantations but inevitably led to the loss of diversity. The decline in the desiccation of the Aral Sea worsened the human condition. The diversion of two rivers to feed the cotton plantation eventually led to water salinisation and caused salt dunes.

The large swathes of irrigated lands were reduced to salinized surfaces. Soviet Union’s economic policies were conceived with no regard for ecology.

These policies directly led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea, desertification of the region, destruction of fisheries, and concentration of salt in the water in the region. Many people regard it as a humanmade ecological disaster. An economy without regard for ecology is bound to fail.

The Aral Sea is a classic example of the same. Environmental degradation has often been associated with the capitalist mode of production of the West. It is stated that capitalism, which works on the notion of the “invisible hand”, does not regard the value of ecological concerns.

However, the Soviet Model of economic planning, a centralized system based on the Marxist-Leninist notion of economy, has been as detrimental to the ecological concerns as the capitalist system—or even worse. In Soviet-type planning, a planning commission (Gosplan) allocated state supplies among various economic organisations.

Economy without Ecology: The Soviet Experience of the Aral Sea

One of the distinct features of the Soviet economic system was the strict application of “Marxist labour theory to natural resources valuation”, which notes that labour is seen as a basic factor of the economic value of goods.

Since human labour gained prominence over natural resources, it was evident that land, water, forest, mountains, seas, and other natural resources were deemed free-riding entities. The Promethean notion was that nature was meant for overexploitation and would adjust itself to resource imbalances (Fusco and Quagliarotti 2016).

abandoned ships in the aral sea basin
Graveyard of ships in the Aral Sea Basin

This behaviour was aggravated by the perception that Socialist society was not in harmony with nature, but rather in conflict with it, since Marxists described the natural environment as being in a state of disorder or chaos (Fusco and Quagliarotti 2016).

The Soviet official ideology was based on conquering nature to increase economic output. From this economic viewpoint, the Soviet planners sought to transform agrarian society into an industrial power. For that to happen, they sought to control all aspects of the economic life of individuals and communities. It was further exacerbated by the need to control and dominate nature through science and technology.

Lenin and the New Economic Policy of 1921

In 1921, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (NEP), whose goal was to boost agricultural productivity, particularly wheat and cotton production. When it subsequently failed, Stalin felt the need to launch “a hard and painful attack against the countryside which would put agriculture forever in the service of industry and of the economic development of the Empire” (Fusco and Quagliarotti 2016, 306).

But such a step would lead to the political rise of the Soviet Union as a great power. In 1929, Stalin put forth Five Year Economic Plan to build a great industry and to collectivize agriculture. To do so, Stalin’s regime implemented collectivization as a mode of production to increase the productivity of the rural economy to feed the industries and the urban population (Fusco and Quagliarotti 2016).

The Soviet Union proposed each region had a distinct task connected to the other regions’ responsibilities inside a system where the State’s interests took precedence over local interests. In the process, the Soviet officials diverted the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya towards the agricultural areas, built dams to divert water, and completely cut off the Aral Sea water supply. The after-effects of it were the ecological disaster in the Aral Basin.

Economic Misuse During the Soviet Era

According to the Soviet leadership’s official assertions, environmental waste, misuse, and poor management were unimaginable in the USSR. Article 18 of the Soviet Constitution notes that the State was obligated to “use the land scientifically and rationally” to “maintain the purity of the air and water, assure the reproduction of natural wealth, and improve the human environment.”

In another, Article 67, it was noted that citizens must “safeguard nature and conserve its treasures” (Bowers 1993). The Soviet Constitution, regrettably, was more of a programmatic text than a manual for practical purposes. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the environmental neglect of the regime was widely discussed.

Two important events grabbed wider attention: the Chornobyl powerplant’s leakage and the Aral Sea’s desiccation. The real ecological State of the “planned economy” was no better. The Aral Sea is an example of it.

By the end of the 1970s, no water from the Syr Darya and only a minimal flow from the Amu Darya was reaching the Aral Sea due to the disruption of the ecological equilibrium caused by the growth of irrigated lands. The Aral Sea region underwent an ecological and socioeconomic catastrophe in barely four decades.

The NEP, five-year plans, the struggle against nomadic and rural life, the effects of agrochemicals and monocultures, the unsustainable use of water resources, forced migration and planned famines, and short-term growth objectives have all contributed to the ecological disaster in the Soviet Union.

The Aral Sea demonstrates that anthropocentric views of nature are shared by communism and capitalism. The Western capitalist model and the Soviet state-centric planned economy shake hands over the idea that nature exists solely for human benefit.

What Needs to be Done: The Aral Sea Crisis

By now, it is evident that the Soviet logic of economic development was at the expense of ecological concerns. The logic that nature is out there to be exploited has been completely debunked. The recent ecological disasters (including the Aral Sea Basin) and the rapid climate change push us to rethink the economy-ecology conundrum.

For this purpose, we must look at the thriving literature on Green’s normative project of international political economy. Green’s critique of international political economy is based on the idea that we will all perish if we do not accommodate the corrective measures.

The Green theorists note that all humans are fundamentally embedded in ecological relationships and that we are just one among many species. And humans are not the centre of the universe.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Green theorists’ normative project is based on the slogan: “Think globally, act locally” (Helleiner 1996, 60). The “act locally” part of the slogan argues that people should focus primarily on improving their quality of life and solving problems within the communities in which they reside.

The phrase looks at the “deep commitment to the decentralization of political-economic life” and provides primacy to local communities (Helleiner 1996, 59–61).

In the book, The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr argues that the era of industrial capitalism has rendered life “out of balance,” thereby enabling us to be slaves of the ‘bigness’ of “political and economic life”. Kohr’s critique of bigness is based on the economic life of a nation-state, which he thought of as the product of industrialization (Helleiner 1996, 62).

In the case of the Soviet Union, it was evident that the desire for the Soviet Union to establish itself as a powerhouse of economic output caused its downfall in 1991.

Kohr’s critique of “bigness” seems apt in this context. For instance, if the Soviet planners had planned an economy in which people were placed at the heart of the crises, then many of the issues about the Aral Sea would not have even been created in the first place.

Think Globally: What Does it Mean?

Soviet Union’s move towards collectivization of farming wrecked the social system based on community-based harmony. The second part of the slogan “think globally” refers to the “urgency and seriousness of the global predicament” of climate change and global warming (Helleiner 1996).

The phrase was given to show the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for societies to act locally. In the context of the Aral Sea, today’s world should realize the effects that such economic disasters can cause in other parts of the world, and they should act accordingly to ensure that such an event does not occur.

Green theorists provide an alternative thinking of international political economy based on a sustainable future, accommodating the interests of humans and nature. Therefore, we must view the green critique of international political economy to engage in discussions around the Aral Sea.

By Way of Conclusion

The Aral Sea is one of the most human-made ecological disasters in the world. It was spearheaded by the Soviet Union’s Promethean economic project that discarded ecological concerns.

The desiccation of the Aral Sea Basin was a direct result of Stalin’s collectivization, the building of Dams to divert water from the two main rivers that supplied water to the Aral Sea, and the mismanagement of the economy.

In this paper, I look at the Aral Sea Basin’s historical overview and document the sea’s desiccation. Then, I have shown how Soviet Union’s policies directly resulted in the receding water levels in the Aral Sea within the four decades since the 1960s. After that, I have provided an analysis of the impact of the ecological crises on human lives and biodiversity.

Finally, I juxtapose Soviet policies with the larger debates in the ecology and economy dichotomy. Here, I argue that the Soviet policies were driven by the Promethean notion of human supremacy and nature’s role as a provider of human needs. I further note that the survivalist, green critique of international political economy is the way forward for societies.

Key References on Aral Sea Crisis

“Aral Sea | Description, History, Map, Shrinking, & Facts | Britannica.” n.d. Accessed September 7, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/place/Aral-Sea.

Fusco, Idamaria, and Desirée A.L. Quagliarotti. 2016. “A Transdisciplinary History of the Disappearance of the Aral Sea.” Global Environment 9 (2): 296–341. https://doi.org/10.3197/ge.2016.090202.

Boomer, Ian, Nikolai Aladin, Igor Plotnikov, and Robin Whatley. 2000. “The Palaeolimnology of the Aral Sea: A Review.” Quaternary Science Reviews 19 (13): 1259–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-3791(00)00002-0

Grabish, Beatrice. 1991. “Dry Tears of the Aral | United Nations.” 1991. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/dry-tears-aral.

Himka, John-Paul. 2013. “Encumbered Memory: The Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 14 (2): 411–36. https://doi.org/10.1353/kri.2013.0025.

References on the Aral Sea and the Economic Crisis

Bowers, Stephen R. 1993. “Soviet and Post-Soviet Environmental Problems.” The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 18 (2): 131–58. https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/gov_fac_pubs/85.

Glantz, Michael H, Alvin Z Rubinstein, and Igor Zonn. 1993. “Tragedy in the Aral Sea Basin: Looking Back to Plan Ahead?” Global Environmental Change 3 (2): 174–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/0959-3780(93)90005-6.

Kumar, Rama S. 2002. “Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia.” Economic and Political Weekly 37 (14): 3797–3802. https://www.epw.in/journal/2002/37/commentary/aral-sea-environmental-tragedy-central-asia.html.

Micklin, Philip. 1988. “Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union.” Science 241 (4870): 1170–76. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.241.4870.1170.

Micklin, Philip, N.V. Aladin, and Igor Plotnikov, eds. 2014. The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-02356-9.

Plotnikov, Igor S., Nikolay V. Aladin, Zaualkhan K. Ermakhanov, and Lyubov V. Zhakova. 2014. “Biological Dynamics of the Aral Sea Before Its Modern Decline (1900–1960).” In The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake, edited by Philip Micklin, N.V. Aladin, and Igor Plotnikov, 41–76. Springer Earth System Sciences. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-02356-9_3.

Precoda, Norman. 1991. “Requiem for the Aral Sea.” Ambio 20 (3/4): 109–14. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4313794.

Small, I., der Meer J. van, and R. E. Upshur. 2001. “Acting on an Environmental Health Disaster: The Case of the Aral Sea.” Environmental Health Perspectives 109 (6): 547–49. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.01109547.

“Uzbek Cotton Is Free from Systemic Child Labour and Forced Labour.” 2022. News. March 1, 2022. http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_838396/lang–en/index.htm.

Wheeler, William. 2017. “Fish as Property on the Small Aral Sea, Kazakhstan.” In Legalism: Property and Ownership, edited by Georgy Kantor, Tom Lambert, and Hannah Skoda, 0. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198813415.003.0009.

———. 2021. “The Aral Sea and the Modernisation of Central Asia: A Century of Catastrophes.” In Environment and Post-Soviet Transformation in Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea Region, 36–64. Sea Changes. UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1kz4ggd.10.

References on International Political Economy and the Aral Sea

Helleiner, Eric. 1996. “International Political Economy and the Greens.” New Political Economy 1 (1): 59–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563469608406238.

Perry, Chris. 2013. “ABCDE+F: A Framework for Thinking about Water Resources Management.” Water International 38 (1): 95–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2013.754618.

Micklin, Philip, and Nikolay V. Aladin. 2008. “Reclaiming the Aral Sea.” Scientific American. April 1, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0408-64.


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