The Aral Sea was a lake lying between Kazakhstan (Aktobe and Kyzylorda provinces) in the north and Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of Uzbekistan, in the south. The name roughly translates as "Sea of Islands", referring to about 1,534 islands that once dotted its waters; in Old Turkic aral means "island" and "thicket". However, the name 'Aral' derives from the Sanskrit word 'Arul' (अरुल) which means 'water'.
Prior to the shallowing, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. It had ports, fish plants and fishing boats floated on the Aral Sea. Up to the 80es of the 20th century it was inhabited by 34 species of fish, 20 of which had marketable value. During its history the Aral Sea has shrunk out several times as evidenced by the numerous remains of flora and fauna found in the dried bed of the Aral Sea. Various expeditions to the study of the Aral Sea were carried out. Scientists suppose that in the middle of the Cenozoic Era (21 million years ago) the Aral Sea was connected to the Caspian Sea, but then the rivers dried up, separating two seas apart – the North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea, and one smaller lake between the North and South Aral Seas. By 2009, the southeastern lake had disappeared and the southwestern lake had retreated to a thin strip at the extreme west of the former southern sea. The maximum depth of the North Aral Sea is 42 m (138 ft) (as of 2008).
The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called "one of the planet's worst environmental disasters." The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been essentially destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship. The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health problems. The retreat of the sea has reportedly also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer.
Over the next 30 years, the Aral Sea experienced a severe drop in water level, its shoreline receded, and its salt content increased. The marine environment became hostile to the sea life in it, killing the plants and animals. As the marine life died, the fishing industry suffered.
The Aral Sea was a rich source of fish. Some 20 species were identified by biologists, including sturgeon and catfish. The town of Muynak, located on the edge of the sea, was a fishing town that also attracted travelers to its seaside vistas. In the 1950's, the Soviet Union decided the great plains were ideal for growing cotton. The critical factor to make it happen was water. Two great rivers feed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Today, Muynak is a desert town more than a hundred kilometers from the sea. The only reminders of the once thriving fishing activity are the rusting hulks of ships and an ancient fish plant. The sea has shrunk to two-fifths of its original size and now ranks about 10th in the world. The water level has dropped by 16 metres and the volume has been reduced by 75 percent, a loss equivalent to the water in both Lakes Erie and Huron. The ecological effect has been disastrous and the economic, social and medical problems for people in the region catastrophic. All 20 known fish species in the Aral Sea are now extinct, unable to survive the toxic, salty sludge.
So centuries old way of life has disappeared in decades. The vast area of exposed seabed is laced with pesticides, so when the wind blows, dust storms spread salt and toxic substances over hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres. It's estimated that 75 million tons of toxic dust and salts are spread across Central Asia each year. If the Aral Sea dries up completely, 15 billion tons of salt will be left behind.