Until 1973, the Aral Sea in southern Kazakhstan was the fourth largest saline lake in the world. By 2004, it had lost 80 per cent of its volume, with a steep rise in surface salinity. The shrinkage began with the diversion of its feeder rivers in the 1960s by Soviet irrigation projects in the region, particularly the cultivation of cotton in arid Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The disappearing Aral Sea has created an environmental disaster. The exposed land where the water has evaporated is toxic, creating a dust bowl full of crop-killing salt, industrial chemicals and fertilizer residues. Dust storms carry these irritants into the air, explaining the high rates of cancer and lung disease in the region. To compound this, the Aral Sea shrinkage has exposed an island where bubonic plague bacteria and anthrax spores were stored as part of the USSR’s bio-warfare programme. Aerial photographs of the lake show rusty ships, where once there was water.
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