Why did the Aral Sea die, because it categorically did not have to?
Here’s the majority of the problem, the answer as it were: Turkmenistan chose to destroy it.
How? It’s the water shown in the photo above: it’s called the Qara Qum Canal.
It channels water from the Amu Darya (the classical Oxus) at Turkmenabat, along the border with Uzbekistan all the way across the Qara Qum Desert to Ashgabat, bleeding the Amu Darya dry, and still failing to slake the thirst of the most hideously gaudy cities planet earth. (Inferior only to Vegas on the vulgarity quotient.)
It carries 13 km³ of water away from the Amu Darya into the desert onwards to Ashgabat. Along its 1,375 kilometer route through the dry wastes of Turkmenistan it loses 50% of the water it siphons away from the Amu Darya due to evaporation. Staggeringly inefficient, as it is. Also preventable.
The Turkmens chose a lifestyle and standard of living approaching the gauche opulence of a Persian Gulf despotism (not that American ecological choices are much better) and this is why the Aral Sea died.
Now, consider this: 50% of that which the Turkmen’s siphon from the Amu Darya evaporates, right?
Now, take Uzbekistan which gets the other 50% of the river.
Uzbekistan engages in another form of breathless stupidity: they grow cotton (a notorious water hog) and rice, yes rice, in the desert with Amu Darya water and their irrigation projects lose another 50% due to evaporation, which also is entirely preventable.
So, before the water even irrigates anything in Uzbekistan or reaches Ashgabat fully half the entire river is lost to piss-poor irrigation technology, technology that could have been upgraded in the 90s for a fraction of what it is now costing both countries in ecological damage due to the effects of the disappearance of the sea.
“What about Kazakhstan,” you ask?
Kazakhstan is the only nation that has done anything to save it’s portion of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya (the classical Jaxartes) feeds the north of the Aral Sea. Several years ago the Kazakhs created realistic conservation policies and also built a dam to hold back the water from evaporating, thereby creating the Little Aral Sea. Yes, it’s something, but it’s still too little, too late.
This is the result of a human policy with global implications. The obvious question is what happens when the glaciers in the Pamirs, you know, those things up in the hills that feed the Amu Darya, disappear due to global warming?
I don’t know, exactly, but it will be bloody and brutal.