The Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in a ‘Planned Economy’

by Desirée Quagliarotti. 

Desirée’s article on the Aral Sea, co-written with Idamaria Fusco appeared in Global Environment 9.2 (Autumn 2016) and can be found here. She is working on a larger study of the Aral Sea.

In the history of economic thought, environmental degradation has been mostly attributed to the capitalist model of economic growth of the Western world, and to the paradigm of neoclassical economic theory, according to which the environment is considered an exogenous variable and the free market’s invisible hand symbolises the better tool for achieving resources efficiency and social welfare. The suspicion that environmental degradation was a phenomenon existing even in the planned economies was weakly supported by news that leaked out in the West till the collapse of the Soviet regime when, thanks to the testimony of many Soviet scientist ‘dissidents’, it was possible to uncover the real state of the environment in the ‘planned economy world’. In such a context, the Aral Sea tragedy provides the most striking example of the human ability to shape the environment and overcome its bounds.

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The Aral Sea Basin

In recent decades the lake, which was the fourth largest inland body of water on the planet, has undergone a drying process with very serious environmental consequences for the whole area. The process of degradation started in the Tsarist era and intensified during the Soviet period. The ‘blue sea’ of Tsarist Russia, in its vision of water exploitation in order to increase cotton production, was described as an ‘useless evaporator’ and a ‘mistake of nature’. Afterwards, in the systemic framework of the USSR, the Aral Sea became an indicator, cornerstone and result of Soviet strategies and ideologies that dramatised the relationship between man and nature through a paradigm characterised by the dominion of human activities over the natural world in the naïve conviction that Soviet engineering, science and know-how were able to divert rivers and make deserts green. In the past, about half of the flow of the two perennial rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, reached the Aral Sea, contributing to maintaining its relatively constant level. The expansion of irrigated areas altered this ecological balance and, by the end of 1970s, no water from the Syr Darya and only a minimal flow of the Amu Darya reached the Aral Sea. In the span of just four decades, the Aral Sea basin was transformed into an ecological and socio-economic disaster.

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The Aral Sea in 2000 and 2014 (right). Source: Atalas Photo Archive/NASA
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The Evolution of the Aral Sea disaster over the years. Source:

Actually, the analysis of the socio-economic and ecological metamorphosis of this remote region could be read as a sequence of case studies shaped over the course of different historical and political contexts that have followed. From the Tsarist regime until the deflagration of the Soviet system, it is possible to detect continuity and fracture points but all sharing a common vision, that was to consider Central Asia as a colony to be sacrificed in the name of the Empire’s growth. NEP, Five-year plans, the fight against rural society and nomadic life, the impact of agro-chemicals and monocultures, unsustainable use of water resources, forced migration and planned famines, short-term growth goals all represent what Goldman calls ‘incentives to pollute under socialism’.[1]

The environmental history of the Aral Sea tells us many things and gives us many lessons – some more visible, some hidden. It tells us that, beyond their different ideologies and opposing management systems, communism and capitalism have in common the anthropocentric vision of nature. Over the belief that nature exists only to be useful to man, the East and the West shake hands. The drying up of the Aral Sea reveals that the State myopia that distinguishes planned economies acts as ‘pendant’ to the Market myopia of capitalist economies; and Homo Oeconomicus who struggles against natural world is as harmful to the environment as Homo Sovieticus who tills the virgin lands with his tractor and pollutes natural resources with his factories.

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Abandoned ship in the Aralkum. Source: Wikipedia.

But the environmental history of the Aral Sea is also a ‘story of hope’ which leaks out from the water of the North Aral, where human ingenuity has created a dam that has at least partially restored the ancient splendor of the lake. And this is perhaps the greatest teaching of the Aral. As claimed by some scholars, if respected, ‘Nature can come back’, and ‘History tells us don’t give up hope’.


[1] Marshall I. Goldman (ed.), Ecology and Economics: Controlling Pollution in the 70s, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972).


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