Man and his environment, in one side-by-side photo spread

What you’re looking at is the Aral Sea, which at one time was the fourth largest lake in the world. On the left you see the lake in 2000, and on the right you see it as it is today, virtually gone. If you want the true scope of the enormous destruction that happened here, this is what the Aral Sea looked like in 1977:

Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviet Union embarked on a massive irrigation project to divert water from the two big rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, in order to turn arid land in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into thriving farmland. They got their farmland, but in the process they destroyed the Aral Sea and the lives and livelihoods of everyone living around it. Recent environmental changes that have meant less precipitation in the watershed have accelerated the final death of the sea. It’s estimated that this is the first time the eastern basin of the Aral Sea has been dry in 6 centuries, going back to a period when the Amu Darya was diverted into the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan has taken steps to ameliorate the devastation to the northern part of the sea, which have been somewhat successful, but Uzbekistan refuses to stop diverting all the water from the Amu Darya for irrigation, particularly since they’re pretty sure there’s oil under that there dry sea bed. Meanwhile the people who live there have lost everything and are suffering from respiratory ailments caused by all that dry, salty dirt being kicked up every time there’s a stiff breeze. This isn’t the worst man-made environmental catastrophe in history (at least not now that we’ve probably brought about an uncorrectable positive feedback cycle), but it may very well be the most visually dramatic, and the next time you hear somebody say that humans can’t really screw up the planet, you might want to have them take a look at these pictures.


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