Dead lakes, dying seas: human-made natural disasters

This is the Aral Sea, which was once one of the four largest lakes in the world, until the Soviet Union diverted the rivers that fed it. Now full of stranded ships, it's just one of the world's dying lakes.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted the two rivers that fed the sea, and it has been shrinking since. As the September 2010 issue of The Trumpet explains:

Since 1960, the Aral Sea has shrunk by over 50 percent. Once a freshwater lake, it is now over twice as salty as the average ocean. Once the source for one sixth of the Soviet Union's seafood, it is now an aquatic graveyard. Huge boats lie marooned in the desert. The lake dried up so fast that boat owners didn't think to relocate their ships until it was too late.

The sea used to cool the air for miles around. Now the local climate is hotter and drier in the summer and colder for longer in the winter. The surrounding region, already dry, is becoming a hard desert.

This is not some nebulous, global-warming-type threat based on the predictions of computer models. This is actual, measurable and provable local climate change that has already happened.

The Wikipedia article on the Aral Sea discusses the history behind the situation and the ecological/economic impact it has had on the inhabitants of the area. The article I had been reading at the time I first encountered this story featured someone's travel journal and tons of photos of ships listing to the side or wedged flat into the bottom of some dead sea. It looked more like a desert. You can see some more Aral Sea photos at Artificial Owl.

I thought of Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl during their adventures in the sand at Davy Jones' Locker.

The Aral Sea isn't the only area that's suffered major repercussions as a result of depleted bodies of water. There's also Mexico City, where Chinampas, or floating gardens, used to feed the local population. Mexico City, formerly known as Tenochtitlan, was situated on an islet in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the largest of five lakes. The surrounding four lakes, Zumpango, Xaltoca, Xochimilco, and Chalco, combined with it to cover about 580sq. miles of the valley floor. The four lakes in the Valley of Mexico are now considered extinct with only small remnants to be found. What remains of Lake Texcoco rests about 2.5 miles outside of Mexico City. It is surrounded by salt marshes and its waters are evaporated to access the salts found in high concentrations.

The Aztecs were a hydraulic society. They depended upon these lakes and surrounding mountain spring water for their basic needs such as bathing, cleaning, agriculture, and transportation. When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan, the leaders ordered the waterways and structures destroyed. When Mexico City was rebuilt in its place, these structures were not restored. Flooding was a common problem. One flood submersed most of the city for five years. The Spaniards began draining the lake by channels and a tunnel connected to the Pánuco River. Yet, the flooding continued until a deep (98-820 ft.) drainage system was installed in 1967. The city fills the lake basin and most of it exists under the phreatic level. The soft, saturated clay base Mexico City is resting on is collapsing due to that extraction and the continued seismic activity that is frequent in the area. This leads to a circular problem. The extraction of ground water causes the city to sink. The sinking has created runoff problems, waste management issues, and flooding.

Pollution, waste management, and drinking water scarcity are issues the city must deal with. You can read more about this here. The lakes are no longer in proximity to the city to support its population. There are other ecological consequences involved with the extinction of the lakes. Species that were indigenous to these lakes also became extinct or are endangered. Some parts of the valley are now semi-arid while Mexico City remains subtropical. "In recent years, architects Teodoro González De León and Alberto Kalach, along with a group of Mexican urbanists, engineers and biologists, have developed the project plan for Recovering the City of Lakes. The project, if approved by the government, will contribute to the supply of water from natural sources to the Valley of Mexico, the creation of new natural spaces, a great improvement in air quality, and greater population establishment planning." (Wikipedia)

I encourage you to read more about both situations and the long-term effects. These were not natural disasters. The situations were caused by humans and their political agendas. The consequences have been severe for these regions. Have you come across this in your reading? This is fodder for your imaginations. Does it spark a story idea or two?

Top photo by Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press.

This article by M.G. Ellington originally appeared in a different form at Science In My Fiction.