How a Sea disappeared
The world's fourth largest lake in 1960, the Aral Sea has already shrunk to half its former size - a result of unsustainable cotton cultivation that began less than 40 years ago. But though the sea itself can no longer be saved, its toxic salt plains have paradoxically given rise to a new spirit in the region. The Aral Sea is only the epicentre of the "tragedy", as Central Asians commonly refer to this legacy of environmental misuse; the damage has also consumed thousands of surrounding square kilometers. Called "the most staggering disaster of the twentieth century" by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Aral Sea basin intersects all five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - which lie in a 690,000-square-kilometer landlocked zone. The 3.5 million people who live in the region have seen their health, jobs and living conditions literally go down the drain. The once thriving fishing and canning industry has evaporated, replaced by anemia, high infant and maternal mortality, and debilitating respiratory and intestinal ailments. Note: This article was originally published in the UN Chronicle, Issue 1, 1999.