How do you save a vanishing lake? Kazakhstan has a plan.

Lakes all over the world — like the Aral Sea in Central Asia — are receding because of climate change and dwindling water resources. But Kazakhstan managed to save part of the Aral Sea. The successes and shortcomings of the achievement can provide lessons for other lakeside communities.

The World

An earlier version of this story appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER. Read the original story here. Funding was provided by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.

In the former Kazakh port town of Aral, rusty cranes that once hoisted cargo from ships now rise above a dried-up bay overgrown with spindly shrubs. Several freshly painted fishing boats stand on the town’s boardwalk, monuments to a former way of life. In the distance, camels roam through a vast desert where fish once swam.

When Akshabak Batimova was growing up in the 1960s, her father left their village in western Kazakhstan each morning to fish in the Aral Sea — which was, until recently, the world’s fourth-largest lake.

Small ships now sit on the old waterfront of Aral, Kazakhstan, as monuments to a bygone era.Levi Bridges/The World

As a girl, Batimova overheard old-timers talking about how the lake was shrinking. But it was only after she left to study marine biology in Russia and returned home one summer after a year away that Batimova noticed the changes herself.

“I went to the place by the lake where we used to swim, but you couldn’t see water anywhere,” Batimova said.

Today, it is estimated that the Aral Sea in Central Asia has dried up to just a tenth of its former size.

Around 60 years ago, when the region was still part of the Soviet Union, authorities diverted the main rivers that feed the Aral Sea to irrigate one of the world’s largest cotton farming operations. And in just three decades, the lakeshore shrunk miles away from communities like the fishing village where Batimova grew up.

Old boats beside the now dried up port of Aral, Kazakhstan. The mighty Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth-largest lake, but its main tributaries were diverted to agriculture in the Soviet era and the lake has since shrunk miles away from the communities built on its former shore.Levi Bridges/The World

By the 1980s, the water fell so low that the Aral Sea’s salinity spiked, killing off its native fish. Fishermen and locals like Batimova, who worked as a researcher monitoring the Aral Sea’s fish, found themselves unemployed.

Dust storms kicked up sediment and pesticides from the dry lakebed, contaminating the air. As a result, locals in the region now experience a range of health issues, including high rates of cancer, kidney problems and infant mortality rates that are nearly twice the global average. 

“When the dust started blowing up, people sat inside with the windows closed and everyone got sick,” said Batimova, who struggles with lung problems.

Fishing boats on the shores of the Aral Sea in western Kazakhstan.Levi Bridges/The World

At the height of the disaster, even people in communities far away in Turkmenistan were affected.

“In archival documents, people complain about the climate changing — less rainfall, hotter summers and more severe winters,” said Sarah Cameron, a history professor at the University of Maryland who’s writing a book about the lake.

Saving the lake

After the Soviet Union fell, however, Kazakhstan launched an ambitious plan to save the Aral Sea. At the heart of the project was a dam built in the early 2000s, spanning a narrow strait connecting the lake’s northern and southern arms.

The dam allowed a major tributary to fill a smaller part of the lake’s basin. It helped the water rise high enough to turn fresh again, and the fishing industry rebounded

After the Soviet Union ended, Kazakhstan built an eight-mile dam that cost $86 million to separate the northern arm of the Aral Sea from the rest of the lake. The water level north of the dam quickly increased by more than 10 feet.Levi Bridges/The World

Thousands of miles away in the US, officials recently tried something similar when the Great Salt Lake in Utah dropped to dangerously low levels. They filled a breach in a railroad causeway that divided the lake so they could divide it into two sections to better manage salinity levels.

“If we can’t get more water to the lake, sacrificing part of the lake is one of the proposals on the table,” said Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor and director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster University in Salt Lake City.

The solution is not without challenges, though, in Kazakhstan or beyond. The Aral Sea has tributaries that flow through six different countries. Afghanistan recently launched construction of a canal that will eventually divert an estimated 20% of the water away from the Aral Sea’s largest tributary river.

Last year, Kazakhstan received so little water that even the section of the lake north of the dam started to turn salty again, and fish had trouble spawning.

When the Aral Sea dried up it turned from freshwater to a salt lake, killing off native fish species and decimating the local fishing industry.Levi Bridges/The World

An uncertain future

On a recent afternoon, Kazakh fishermen complained about the poor catch as they loaded nets onto small fiberglass fishing boats.

“The lake is becoming much smaller and the financial situation of fishermen is getting worse every day,” said Aidarbek Altay Uly as he prepared to push his boat through the shallow waters to a distant point on the horizon where the lake finally became deep enough to fire up the motor.

But Kazakh officials and the locals who remain near the lake haven’t given up hope.

Fishermen have used sand to build a makeshift pier into the Aral Sea. Despite successes in revitalizing the lake, the water level has dropped again recently, making it more difficult for fishermen to bring their boats to deep water.Levi Bridges/The World

“We might need to introduce ocean species of fish if we can’t stop the lake from salinating,” said Zaualkhan Ermakhanov, a local scientist in Aral who studies the lake’s fish.

Many Kazakhs believe adaptation is a better option than moving elsewhere. 

They saved the Aral Sea before, and now they believe they can do it again.

Leia Larsen contributed to this report.

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