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The Amu Darya river is one of the two main sources of the Aral Sea. Irrigation of the Amu Darya basin dates back over three thousand years, however the contemporary Aral Sea crisis is the product of Soviet and post-Soviet (mis)management in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Soviet history 

By the end of 1922, the combined catastrophes of the First World War, revolution, revolt and civil war had left Central Asian agriculture in ruins. The infrastructure of irrigation and agricultural systems was devastated. Over the coming decades, the Soviet government exponentially increased irrigation in Turkestan. Stalin's ‘Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature’ was the zenith of the larger Soviet scheme to impose a cotton monoculture on the Aral Sea Basin. A vast amount of the Amu Darya's water was redirected through extensive canal networks. After Stalin's death in 1953, this irrigation network continued to grow at an even faster rate (Peterson, 2019).

In 1954, the USSR began its largest project on the Amu Darya - the Karakum Canal. This canal was conceived as a waterway between the Amu Darya and the Caspian Sea, however this goal proved unobtainable. Construction on the Karakum Canal ended in 1988, before the waterway reached its intended destination. Even so, the Karakum Canal is one of the largest irrigation canals on earth, running over 1000 kilometers through the Karakum Desert and diverting around 13 cubic km of water away from the Amu Darya per annum. Leakage and evaporation plague the canal, with the result that as much as 70% of the Amu Darya's water disappears into the sands of the Karakum Desert (UNDP, 2009).

Between 1960 and 1991, the Soviets built thousands more kilometers of canals along the Amu Darya. Construction proceeded regardless of the catastrophic implications for the Aral Sea, although Soviet scientists and engineers were well aware of the ecological fallout. A former Soviet official told the New York Times in 2002 that: “it was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea” (Makuch, 2012).


Post-Independence History 

The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, but its irrigation schemes persisted under the new leader of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. His government continued to rely on the cotton monoculture that had grown along the Amu Darya. Little changed until Karimov's death in 2016.

Reform Under Mirziyoyev

President Mirziyoyev’s assumption of power in late 2016 was accompanied by a frenzy of progressive reforms. The new government has directed far more attention towards the Aral Sea Crisis than any previous one. In September 2019, Mirziyoyev championed the idea of transforming the Aral Sea region into a zone of ecological innovations and technologies. His proposition was enacted by the UN General Assembly in 2021.


In the last few years, an increasingly global network of donors has directed funds to mitigate the Aral Sea Crisis. As of December 2022, the UN Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea has raised over $16 million. This international fund was created in 2018, and works to support the communities affected by the ecological fallout of the Aral Sea Crisis. Mirziyoyev has also lifted many restrictions of data, and thus enabled more research to be undertaken in the Aral Sea Region. Notably, the first socio-economic survey of communities living in the Aral Sea region was conducted by the UN in 2017. 

Today the sea is gone, but its people remain. And while the road is long, their future is beginning to look more hopeful.


Makuch, B. (2012). Ghost Lake: The Aral Sea Disaster. Vice.

Peterson, M. K. (2019). Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin. Cambridge University Press.

UNDP (2009). UZBEKISTAN: Improving Irrigation Efficiency and Lowering Energy Consumption. UNDP.

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