Chinese Experience: Helping to save the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea has a grand history in Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region and was once one of the four largest lakes in the world, covering 68,380 square kilomters with Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. Its name means “Island Sea” as this water body is surrounded by the forbidding deserts and dry steppes.

As many are aware, Soviet irrigation projects begun in the 1960s and other environmental challenges have severely depleted this once massive inland sea and by 2007, it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size.

But what many don’t know is that there has been a significant effort to revive the Aral Sea, or, at least, its part, both internationally and in Kazakhstan.

In October 2021, Chinese and Uzbek scientists released a joint declaration in Urumqi, the capital city of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to carry out regional cooperation and improve the environment of the Aral Sea with the technologies of the two sides and other countries. 

Lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the inland water has shrunk remarkably in recent years due to climate change and increasing human activities. 

The ecological problems of the Aral Sea have influenced the safety of water resources in Central Asia, said Lei Jiaqiang, a researcher with the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Xinjiang has accumulated considerable experience with desertification control, which can apply to the ecological problems that the Aral Sea is facing, Lei added. 

The institute has established three field stations and an agricultural experiment demonstration area in Uzbekistan. The scientists from the two countries have made a series of achievements in ecological restoration, water-saving irrigation, water resource management and other fields. “We believe that desertification control can not only play an important role in ecological protection but also in economic development based on Chinese experience with the sand industry,” said Bao Anming, another researcher with the institute. “We hope to select the plants that are suitable for desertification control including sea buckthorn, a kind of drought-enduring shrub whose fruit is known for its richness in vitamin C, to help local herdsmen increase their income,” Bao added. 

China and Uzbekistan will work together to improve the monitoring system of the Aral Sea, seek better economic benefits from the ecological restoration, and apply Chinese technologies in water resources management to the ecological problems of the inland sea, according to the institute. 

China has made significant contributions to taming desertification. The area of desertified land in the country shrinks by an annual average of 2,424 square km, compared to an expansion of 10,400 square km at the end of the last century, official statistics showed. North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, home to several large deserts lying at the forefront of China’s fight against desertification, has completed an afforestation project that spans more than 666,700 hectares every year.  

dried aral sea
Dried Arel Sea bed, with abandoned fishing vessels at was once the shore line.

SOURCE: Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Accessed 2021/12/06. Dated Oct. 31, 2021.