My room was a mess. The accumulated flotsam of my first 23 years had been purged from my cupboards and drawers for a ruthless sort-and-dispose mission. Preparing for my move to London was a frenetic affair, but as I flicked through the years of junk, I uncovered a few gems. One came in the form of the happy, smiling face of a child.
I’d been sorting through old photos (you know, ones that are printed on paper) and stumbled across a particularly old stash. There, cheerily looking out from under a green hat, was little, blonde David. The depths of my memory tingled with recognition at the scene – a path up to the crest of a sand dune, with low saltbush on either side. I was with my school class on a trip to Narnu Farm on Hindmarsh Island in South Australia. I remember reaching the crest and looking over the expanse of the Coorong, a stunning, undeveloped landscape of wetlands and coastal lagoons. In my mind, the sand of the path and the fresh, salty air are tantalisingly real.
Today, the Coorong system is a shadow of its former self. In 2008, major concerns were raised about the health of Lake Alexandrina. Freshwater inflows from Australia’s main river, the Murray, were so low that acid soils were starting to form in parts of the rapidly evaporating lake. pH measurements of some wetland pockets read as low as 1.6 (on a scale of 0 to 14, where 7 is neutral and 1 is car battery acid!). Needless to say, in those areas, all of the local plants and animals died.
Human intervention in the Murray system, in combination with unprecedented drought, had created the problem. Upstream, heavy irrigation and flow control decreased and modified natural water inputs. Downstream, near the Murray’s outflow to the ocean, barrages were erected to block ocean-lake exchange. Recognition of the problem only filtered into mainstream awareness as the situation became critical.
A controversial dam was built to put off the threatening disaster and keep the bulk of the lake from turning acidic. In a stroke of luck, drought-breaking rains in September this year put off what could have been Australia’s biggest environmental nightmare yet. Even though there’s been mitigating rain, there are still big environmental problems. Toxic heavy metals, freed by the acidification process, are now moving through the system. Plus, a once-off rain event, no matter how big, can’t ensure the long-term future of the Coorong and its surrounds. Will kids on school camps, like me in the early 90s, still be able to visit Narnu Farm and see birds and plants in 2050?
“Wait!” I hear you ask. “Why are you telling me about Australia when the title question was about the Aral Sea?”
Good question! It’s because the Coorong and Murray, and many other natural systems and the people depending on them, are at risk of falling victim to human ideology. Our collective approach to resource use has triggered environmental disaster before. One of the most brutal examples is the story of the Aral Sea.
The Aral was once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, fed by the mighty Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. It supported shipping, fishing and supplied communities all around the lake with a way of life. Today, it covers less than 10% of its original area. Pesticide-tainted, bare deserts make up what was once the seabed. Devastated coastal communities cling to an existence of poverty and poor health, their harbours dry and their ships rusting on the ground.
Much of the worst damage to the Aral Sea has happened in my lifetime. However, the writing has been on the wall for much longer than that. Strong ideology, poor planning, inefficient and wasteful resource use and a disregard for the future all fed into a perfect storm of environmental abuse. In the Aral Sea’s case, we need to go rewind to the 1940s to watch the beginning of the end.
Join me again on Friday for a trip back in time to see what went wrong with the Aral. Along the way, you’ll spot parallels with our environmental approach today, and hopefully you’ll learn why I don’t just give up and let it all take its course…