The Aral Sea Crisis: Human-Nature Coupled System Case Study

In my recent post about the ecological impact of cotton, I mentioned the disaster of the Aral Sea. This post takes a closer look at this situation, as a case study of a human-nature coupled system.

First off, a human-nature coupled system, or a coupled human-environment system, is an analytical framework to understand the complex interactions between society and our environment. After learning about the Aral Sea as a case study of this, I think you’ll have a solid understanding of what this means.


The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest fresh water lake in the world, but now it’s mostly disappeared and the remaining water has turned salty.

The Aral Sea – once a booming fishing industry

This was caused by massive and inefficient irrigation systems for cotton cultivation, which diverted water from the rivers feeding the Aral, reducing the inflow of fresh water. Before the Russian Empire, and later the USSR, decided to make cotton a primary crop in the region, the sea supported a huge fishing industry. As the water turned salty and disappeared, fish populations dropped and previously coastal towns found themselves in the middle of a desert.

The geography of the region was originally a landscape of desert, semi-desert, dry steppes, and high mountains. The Aral Sea was surrounded by two large deserts, and was considered an oasis of the region. The lake was fed by rivers flowing from high mountain glaciers. The sea had many islands scattered about, with lagoons and shallow straits, which provided a healthy ecosystem for many plants and animals.

Abandon fishing boats in the desert that used to be water.

The Russian Empire, starting in the 1700s, conquered this region of Central Asia and it was fully part of Russia by the 1900s. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the region divided into five newly independent nations. This was jarring and the states had a difficult time adjusting to the loss of overarching infrastructure and control.

Currently, what is left of the Aral Sea spans Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but the Aral Sea Basin also includes parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

The Aral Sea Crisis:

The desiccation of the Aral Sea has profound social, economic, environmental, and public health ramifications in the region. There is a vast amount of literature on the Aral Sea crisis, and if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have resources at the end.

Stranded ships – Image by © Daniel Kreher/imageBROKER/Corbis

Here, I’m going to give you a condensed and visual representation of this crisis as a case study of human-nature coupled systems. The underpinning issue of this case study is that cotton production, which plays a major role in our consumerist society, requiring massive toxic chemicals, was the primary driver in this crisis. Considerations for environmental and human health were secondary to economic gains for monocropping cotton in terms of policy and planning.

For more information check out some of these sources:

LiveEarthDotOrg – Aral Sea Documentary (Youtube video 10 mins)

We are Water Foundation – Aral. The Lost Sea by Isabel Coixet (Youtube video 25 mins)

AJ+ Docs – The Salton Sea is Shrinking and Exposing Toxic Dust (youtube video 10 mins)

Aljazeera World – People of the Lake (article and 45 minute video)

Aljazeera – Uzbekistan: A dying sea, mafia rule, and toxic fish (news article)

United Nations Environment Program: The Future of the Aral Sea lies in Transboundary Cooperation

Karakalpak Center for Reproductive Health and Environment – Health and Ecological Consequences of the Aral Sea Crisis

Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health – The Aral Sea Environmental Health Crisis

ScienceDirect Journal of Eurasian Studies – Nature-Society Linkages in the Aral Sea Region



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