About 20 years ago, the sea divided into the Small Aral Sea in the north, located in Kazakhstan, and the Large Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The horseshoe-shaped Large Aral Sea began to split into eastern and western lobes in 2000.
The ESA released an overlay of photographs taken by one of its Earth observation satellites, Envisat, on July 1, 2006 and July 6, 2009, showing that “the eastern lobe retreated substantially” in that period. “It appears to have lost about 80% of its water since the 2006 [image] acquisition, at which time the eastern lobe had a length of about 150 kilometres and a width of about 70 kilometres,” the agency said.
By 2020, the ESA added, the Large Aral Sea is expected to dry out completely. Efforts are under way to save the far-smaller northern part, thanks to the Kok-Aral dike, a project of the World Bank and the government of Kazakhstan. Water level there has risen by four metres since the dike was completed in 2005.
Some experts consider the desiccation of the Aral Sea to be the worst-ever man-made ecological catastrophe, with huge implications for human well-being. Once-thriving fishing and other shoreline industries have been destroyed. Each year, tens of thousands of tonnes of salt-laced dust blow from the dried-up seabed. Much of it is contaminated by pesticides.