The Disappearing Aral Lake and the Ship Graveyard of Moynaq

Jun 2, 2012 7 comments

Moynaq (also spelled as Muynak and Moynaq) is a city in northern Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan. Half a century ago, the city was located on the shore of the Aral Sea, a proud fishing community and the largest port in Karakalpakstan’s. In the heydays, Muynak and other towns on the Aral were hauling 160 tons of fish each day from its shimmering waters. Today, Muynak is separated from the sea by more than 150 kilometers. Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometres, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking. Vessels that once floated in the waters now stand rusting in the sun at the famous ship graveyard. But how did this happen?

In the 1940s, ambitious Soviet planners embarked on a massive water program designed to make the desert bloom. It was decided that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. By 1960, between 20 and 60 cubic kilometres of water were going each year to the land instead of the sea. With most of the sea's water supply gone, the Aral Sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral's sea level fell at an average of 20 cm a year; in the 1970s, the average rate nearly tripled to 50–60 centimetres per year, and by the 1980s it continued to drop, now with a mean of 80–90 centimetres each year. By 2007, the Aral sea had declined to 10% of its original size.


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The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, was devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores become ship graveyards. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years. Poisonous dust storms kicked up by strong winds across the dried and polluted seabed give rise to a multitude of chronic and acute illnesses among the few residents who have chosen to remain, most of them ethnic Karakalpaks, and weather unmoderated by the sea now buffets the town with hotter-than-normal summers and colder-than-normal winters.

When the Aral Sea began to shoal, a 20-kilometer canal was dug. But it was useless. The sea went even further, the graveyard of ships grew around the city, the airport was closed, some fishermen went away, some died, some men were engaged in trade, some - in breeding camels.

There is an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea. In 2005, the Kokaral Dam was built to control the inflow of waters coming from the Syr Darya. Thanks to the dam the level of water has rose by 24 meter in 2008. However, the outlook for the remnants of the South Aral Sea remains bleak.


Fisherman on the Aral Sea in 1952, at the port town of Muynak, Uzbekistan. Photo credit


Aral sea in 1989 and 2008


Aral Sea from space, August 1985


Aral Sea from space, 1997


Aral Sea from space, August 2009. The black line shows the lake shore ca. 1960.


Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea


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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


  1. Possibly the most dramatic, most visible and fastest impact of Man on his biome I have ever seen. We made an entire sea disappear in less than 40 years. Incredible.

  2. Youknow, you're right. Hopefully you read why, it's due to diverting the waters going into the lake for irrigation. I just saw a video blaming "climate change". Sad they have to lie to try and convince people... all too common, since climate change is crap.

    1. well, I wouldn't say climate change is crap.....

    2. Griffin, you are absolutely correct. The loss of this sea was due to the diversion of its water supply to the dessert. They believed they could transform the dessert into a fertile land for growing crops. But just as the environmentalists lied about why and how this sea was lost (i.e. global warmimg), those who have drunk the Kool-Aid will also defend them here and other forums.
      The climate is changing... the same way it has changed many, many times over this planet's life. It has very little to do with mankind's intervention. The planet will see many more "Ice Age" and "Global Warming" cycles, whether we are here to see it or not.
      Isn't it strange that the people that believe that WE are to blame for this and other natural changes also are the ones who voted for Obama. Just a different flavor of Kool-Aid, I suppose.

  3. Griffin, You're a wise man

  4. Be kind to Mother Earth, for as with any "Female" once scorned and scarred the penalties that lie in wading could prove very devastating. For the *STORMS* are to be living experiences that will be talked of for all Eternity


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