The story of the Aral Sea

A message from Life co-author Helen Stephenson

I remember reading about the Aral Sea a long time ago. I think it was one of the first environmental stories that had an impact on me. Since I first read about it, there have been twists and turns in the story, which these three short news items from the National Geographic news page explain.

April 2010   One Sunday afternoon in Kazakhstan last August, three dozen fishermen met near the shore of the North Aral Sea. They brought food to eat and they had races and throwing contests. Afterwards, they relaxed telling stories and singing songs about the Aral Sea and fishing and how much they loved both of these things. For many years before this, there had been no reason to celebrate. The Aral Sea in Central Asia, once the fourth largest lake in the world, had shrunk because of irrigation and drought. Then in 2005, the Kazakh government and the World Bank constructed a dam that separated the northern and southern parts of the sea, allowing the northern part of the Aral Sea to start to recover. There are fish in the water again and for the past four years, fishermen have come here to celebrate. Philip Micklin is a scientist who has been studying the sea since the 1980s. ‘Nature can come back.’ he says.

October 2014   Satellite images released this week show that the eastern part of the Aral Sea is completely dry. ‘It is likely the first time it has completely dried up in 600 years,’ said expert Philip Micklin. The Aral Sea once covered 67,300 square kilometres. It’s actually a freshwater lake, not a saltwater sea, since two of Central Asia's biggest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, flow into it. The Aral Sea used to be a busy place. It provided work for 40,000 people and supplied the Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish. As the lake dried up, it separated into several small lakes which together were only a tenth of the lake’s original size. The eastern part nearly dried up in 2009, but it recovered in 2010 after substantial rainfall. Now, it’s completely dry.

June 2015   Yusup Kamalov, a scientist from Uzbekistan, is my guide. We’re standing looking at a vast desert. Except that it’s not like any other desert – there are abandoned fishing boats lying on the sand. Fifty years ago, the southern shore of the Aral Sea was right where we stand. Now it is 80 kilometres away to the northwest and we set off to drive to the water’s edge. On the way, we pass oil and natural gas rigs standing on the sand. ‘Each year a few more are put up,’ says Kamalov. ‘Can you imagine,’ he says, ‘that 40 years ago the water was 30 metres deep right here?’ Eventually, we see a silver line sparkling on the horizon. We reach the water and I try to swim – but the water is so salty I just float on the surface.  And with 110 grams of salt per litre of water (compared to about 35 grams in the world’s oceans), no fish are able to survive here. ‘This is what the end of the world looks like,’ says Kamalov.


dam (n) a wall to stop water flowing or moving
drought (n) a long period with no rain
freshwater (adj) containing water that does not have salt in it, like the water in rivers and lakes
irrigation (n) a system for taking water to crops
rig (n) a structure for getting oil or gas out of the ground
saltwater (adj) containing water that has salt in it, like the water in seas and oceans


construct (v) to build something
cover (v) to be on the surface of something
dry up (phr-v) if a river or lake dries up, it becomes dry because water stops coming into it
recover (v) to return to an earlier, better condition
release (v) to make something known or available to the public
separate (v) to divide something into parts
shrink (v) to become less or smaller
substantial (adj) large in size or amount
supply (v) to give somebody something that they need
vast (adj) extremely large

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. What happened to the Aral Sea over the period of the news stories?
It dried up more.
It filled up more.
The water level didn’t change.

2. Which of these things are NOT mentioned as having an effect on the Aral Sea water level?
the dam

3. How many areas of the Aral Sea are mentioned?

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4. Which term describes the first news story?

5. According to the first news story, what happened after the building of the dam?
The Aral Sea returned to its former size.
There was more water available for irrigation.
There were more fish in the northern part of the Aral Sea.

6. According to the second news story, ...
the Aral Sea has shrunk into ten small lakes.
the eastern part of the Aral Sea has never been dry before.
the water in the Aral Sea comes from rivers.

7. According to the second news story, ...
about 40,000 fishermen used to fish in the Aral Sea.
most of the fish people in the Soviet Union ate came from the Aral Sea.
the Aral Sea used to provide food and jobs.

8. According to the third news story, the southern Aral Sea now produces ... instead of fish.

9. According to the information in the third news story, what can you assume is true?
It’s too dangerous to swim in the Aral Sea.
Only saltwater fish live in the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

10. According to the third news story, what is Kamalov’s view of the Aral Sea’s future?