One of the worst environmental disasters in living memory is the near vanishing of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. What was once one of the world’s four largest lakes, containing some 1.5 thousand islands and covering 68,000 square kilometres (26,000 miles), by 2007 the Aral Sea was only 10% of its previous size and divided into four lakes.

What happened to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s inland sea was not the result of normal changing weather patterns. The fate of the Aral Sea is a story of human intervention, contamination and local climate change.

Aral Sea, Kazakhstan. Pic: public domain

From a 2010 ABC/AP report:

The shrunken sea has ruined the once-robust fishing economy and left fishing trawlers stranded in sandy wastelands, leaning over as if they dropped from the air. The sea’s evaporation has left layers of highly salted sand, which winds can carry as far away as Scandinavia and Japan, and which plague local people with health troubles.

The regional competition for water from the lake began in the 1940s with leaky irrigation canals and took a great leap forward in the early 1960s with the Soviet diversion of two major tributary rivers in order in order to promote desert agriculture. Most of the water went to waste. Salinity went up to around three times that of normal seawater, which – together with agricultural runoff, pesticides, industry and weapons testing waste – has resulted in the death of the local fishing industry, water shortages and health problems.

Over in China, the largest desert fresh water lake has also been steadily declining since the 1970s and rapidly disappearing (nearly by a third) in only the past four years.

From the Guardian:

Hongjiannao Lake, several hundred kilometres to the west of Beijing, has been disappearing since the 1970s, due to a combination of coal mining and climate change. But the speed at which it is losing area has increased rapidly since 2009, when it measured 46 square kilometres (sq km), down from 67 sq km in 1969.

The multi-pronged threat of decreasing rainfall, rising temperatures and a water-greedy large scale coal mine are reminders of how industrial development can exploit an extremely valuable natural area and ruin it in the process.

Another example is the picturesque Black Dragon Lake in the city of Lijiang, northwest Yunnan province. In this case hot weather and drought have caused the lake to disappear altogether. Furthermore, Yunnan’s hydroelectric projects are putting stresses on water resources across the region.

Dried up reservoir in China's Yunnan province, Pic: Remko Tanis

Lijiang is hardly alone. Similar situations are happening across other parts of Yunnan province, which usually has more rain than half of China’s regions. But it has experienced extremely low rainfall for the past three years.

In the first quarter of this year, Yunnan’s average rainfall dropped by 70 percent, indicating the start of the drought’s fourth consecutive year, according to the water resources department in the region.

–EE News

Future weather forecasts are grim and the replacement of natural forests with commercial timber is not helping. Many of Yunnan’s farmers are struggling to survive.

Read more on that story here.