Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life


Thanks to large-scale restoration efforts, the North Aral Sea has seen a resurgence of fish—a boon to the communities that rely on it. (National Geographic)

Use our resources to learn more about how the Aral Sea was written off for dead to begin with, and why it won’t ever fully recover.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

The Kokaral dam sits near Aqbasty, Kazakhstan, where the North and South Aral Seas part.
Map by Morris Ryan, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • According to Nat Geo, “At its peak in 1957, the Aral Sea produced more than 48,000 tons of fish, representing roughly 13 percent of the Soviet Union’s fish stocks.” Why did such robust fish stocks plummet?
    • The Aral Sea itself plummeted—take a look at those satellite images above, or get up-close here. “Once the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake … the Aral Sea became the victim of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policies in the 1950s. Water from its two river sources—the Amu Darya and Syr Darya—was intentionally diverted for cotton cultivation.”
      • The cotton industry was not sustainable in the long-term. As the lake receded, “salt flats spread for more than 100 kilometers (62 miles). Winds pick up the salt and deposit it over agricultural lands, spoiling some of the fertilized, irrigated soil. More than 40 million metric tons of dried salt have been swept into agricultural lands.”
      • Today, the Aral Sea does not exist. There are, instead, two distinct bodies of water: the North Aral Sea (also known as the “Small Sea,” in Kazakhstan) and the South Aral Sea (in Uzbekistan).


  • Is the Aral Sea recovering?


  • How is the Kokaral dam helping revive fish stocks in the North Aral Sea?
    • more water. The dam has resulted in an 18% increase in lake volume since its completion. In 2006—pre-dam—the fishing industry harvested 1,360 tons of fish. In 2018, the fishing limit is set at 8,200 tons.
    • decreased salinity. Before the Kokaral project, “flounder was the only fish that could survive the high-salinity North Aral Sea.” Today, lake fisheries include bream, roach, and the profitable “gold fish” of pike-perch or zander.


  • How has the North Aral Sea’s recovery brought new threats to the ecosystem?
    • poaching. A “raft of illegal fishing” continues during the breeding season of May-July, when fishing is banned. “Everyone usually goes late at night, because during the day, everyone is afraid the fish inspectors will come. There are no other jobs and fishing is the main source of income, so they will always continue to fish.”




Nat Geo: Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life

Nat Geo: Disappearing Lake reference resource

Nat Geo: Where Has All the Water Gone? reference resource

The World Bank: Saving a Corner of the Aral Sea

2 thoughts on “Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life

  1. I hope to visit there one day. By the time I get there, I hope there will be full of colorful lives.

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