The Aral Sea is one of the most ancient lakes on Earth, with a history of 3,500 years. It was also the fourth largest lake in the world until the late 1950s.
It is dying now. The sea has dropped by 16 metres and the water has become too salty. There are now three million hectares of land which were once covered by water. The climate has been affected and changed this land into desert.
The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers feed the Aral Sea. They travel through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the 1920s new irrigation technologies were introduced and larger-scale cotton cultivation was begun. Water from the rivers was diverted for agricultural and population needs.
Until the 1950s, between 50 and 60 cubic kilometres of water reached the Aral Sea each year. Since the 1960s the Aral Sea has lost almost 75 per cent of its volume, and has shrunk to 50 per cent of its size. In some dry years in the 1980s no water flowed into the sea at all. The water has become over-salty and lost most of its natural plant and animal life. The low quality of water has caused many diseases.
Annually thousands of tons of dust, sand and salt are taken into the atmosphere from the deserted floor of the Aral Sea and some of the particles are found as far away as Canada.
National Geographic summed up the situation best by saying: 'It has never happened within the time frame of a single generation, the disappearance of such a large body of water.'