Aral Sea or Semipalatinsk: Which is the Worst Disaster?

I asked my students in a quiz based on a short excerpt from Christopher Robbin’s book: “What is the difference between the two environmental disasters of the Aral Sea and Semipalatinsk?  Which is worse and why?” The following are their answers:


In my opinion, the disaster in Aral Sea is uncomparable with the environmental disaster in Semipalatinsk.  It’s quite a different thing.  The most shameful in both of these catastrophes is that now our government doesn’t pay any attention on the victims.  In Soviet times somebody planned the solutions of the problems, made decisions.  But now we can see nothing!  Where are these plans?  We have only facts:  Kazakhs allowed to make a polygon on their land, Kazakhs can’t make any money with the Aral Sea, people die from diseases because both Semypalatinsk and Aral Sea are disasters.  But our government can only talk too much about the consequences and do nothing with them.  This is the most shameful!


About Semipalatinsk, we have some communities that are working with this problem like “Nevada-Semipalatinsk”as some governmental project that wants to reduce influence of radiation and to help people that live there.  But there are only few communities that work to help Aral Seas problem.

Maybe everybody thinks that radiation is more dangerous than vanishing of sea.  But vanishing of Aral is world-size problem.  I read that salt from Aral was found in Central Russia.  Can you even imagine what distance it is?  It is so it can influence on Syberia, Northern Africa and Europe.


Aral Sea was the place where people can rest, it was a place where fish was widespread, of course after cultivation of cotton, Soviet destroyed the natural environment of Aral Sea zone.  Nowadays when someone goes to that zone, they’re afraid that they can get some illness, you can call Aral Sea zoneà”Dead Zone.”

But Semipalatinsk tragedy is also, and more disastrous than Aral Sea problem.  The effect is still widespread, the nuclear things still in the ground, that’s why Semipalatinsk fruits and vegetables are the worst selling ones.  People are afraid to try that product, because they are afraid that someday they will give a birth, and a child that is born will be disabled, as many of them in Semipalatinsk region are.  It’s the tragedy that still affects on our society, both of them are!


The Aral Sea disaster clearly shows that insatiable human desire for more and more and its consequences.  It also shows Moscow’s indifference to the other countries of USSR and their citizens.  I think at this point a lot of Kazakhstan citizens became disappointed in Russia’s image of “Big Brother.” Comparing Aral Sea disaster with Semipalatinsk disaster is very hard especially in terms of their negative effect on people’s health but there are two reasons why I think Aral Sea disaster is worse.  First, is that it affects flora and fauna of not only Aral Sea region, but even further.  As we heard in the article, salt form the Aral Sea brought by wind to the Europe.  The second reason is the time needed to bring everything back to the good.  It will take a lot of time to bring Aral Sea to the past size and bring life to that region back.


What I find most shameful is a huge Soviet Union with a lot of scientists who couldn’t think about this action!  I mean if there were enough clever people in the USSR, they should thought before doing something!

But I still find the situation in Semipalatinsk worse, because the affect of this catastrophe is still existing in that area!  And people who died, suffered and those who suffer even now can’t even blame anybody, as there is nobody to blame!  That was really awful action and completely irresponsible one!  Soviet Union put it’s step in our history and environment and although there were some good acts, those two are really bad.


The problem of Aral Sea…The worst part of it is that it is probably one of the biggest mistakes of humans referring to environment.  When you see the ships standing in the middle of what used to be a sea and now is a desert, and look in the eyes of men – former sailors, it’s a sad picture.

I really hope that the scientists will come up with a solution to Aral Sea disaster, because it causes a lot of problems not only in Kazakhstan  – the salt from the sea gets to the Arctic!


The disaster of Aral Sea is more widespread.  The Soviet Union government did many stupid and harmful things.  If we destroy nature, nature destroy us.  The effect of Aral disaster is longer, more time consuming to repair.

5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    ansar08 said,

    //But our government can only talk too much about the consequences and do nothing with them. This is the most shameful!// Because they have forgotten about poeple. I think that they have no heart.

  2. 2

    Ray Wright said,

    The fundamental problem with the Aral Sea is the vastly expanding human populations in the region, made possible by the availablility of water for irrigation. It was the administrators of the Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs who caused the disaster, by getting Moscow to agree to the irrigation schemes, not central Soviet planners. There is no credible engineering solution, other than (I suggest) an increase in the height of the Kok-Aral dam, to fully restore the Lesser Aral sea, at least. And then, if populations and the demaind for water in the Kazakh and Uzbek republics further increase, then even the Lesser Aral will not last much longer. Central Asia is naturally semi-arid and not able to support a large human populaiton as it is. The Aral Sea was a much-welcomed but fragile oasis in it. I wish there were some way I could help restore it, but I fear that it is lost.

  3. 3

    Kazakhnomad said,

    “Dr. Wright, With all due respect, you do NOT know what you are writing about when you write: “It was the administrators of the Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs who caused the [Aral Sea] disaster, by getting Moscow to agree to the irrigation schemes, not central Soviet planners.” You must read the Socialist history literature which would emphatically and eagerly put the onus on the Central Asians. If you have not read the ACTUAL history of what happened with repressions and genocides of the Kazakh people and others perpetrated by the Kremlin and those in power in the 1930s-1950s, then you would not be gullible enough to believe it was the Central Asians telling the Moscow elite what to do.

    I know your heart is perhaps in the right place, we all agree that it is tragic this disaster of the Aral Sea ever happened. However, I’d like you to show me your sources from which you make this very strained argument. Are they scientific or ideological in nature? Unfortunately, these days with globalwarming one can’t tell the difference. I object to algore putting photos of the Aral Sea on his website pontificating about how the dried up sea was a result of warming. No, it was a result of the socialist man’s policies.

    I also challenge you to leave the comforts of your office and travel to Kazakhstan to the Aral Sea and hear the stories from those people who remain after its shores have been deciminated and the ground turned to salt making it adverse conditions for any kind of agriculture. No, if you were to visit what is left of the inhabitants (not “large human population” as you posit), they would tell you a different story, I’m sure.

    Better yet, stay put and just read the chapter from Christopher Robbins recent book “Apples are from Kazakhstan” and you will get a better sense of what happened to the Aral Sea. If you are brave enough, you can read his other section on what Moscow’s central planning did to the Semipalatinsk region.

  4. 4

    Ray Wright said,

    I would, very much, like to leave the comfort of my office and visit Aralsk, the Kokaral Dam, Moynaq, Vozrozhdeyie Island and other points of interest on the Aral Sea, in order to gain the story first-hand. I need to imporive my Russian, first. I’m working on that.

    I agree with you that the Aral’s demise was most certainly NOT the result of global warming. Al Gore should, indeed, be ashamed of himself.

    On the population issue. Indeed, the population of the Aral Sea area must surely be depleted, due to the collapse of agriculture and fisheries, but I don’t think that is true of such places as Taskent, say, and the other centres of population in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya’s water is now being used to grow crops without which millions would starve. How do you stop that?

    On the subject of who actually made the planning decisions or who failed to object, let us say, please take a look at this link: I have been in correspondence with the author, Sergei Roy, who is clearly very knowledgeable about Central Asia and the Aral sea problem, and I find his arguments very convincing. Perhaps you should correspond with him, too. I only disagree with him over the Kok-Aral dam. I feel that it is the best that can be done under the circumstances, and a full restoration of the Lesser Aral could, at least, be achieved, so long as the flow in the Syr-Darya is not allowed to decrease again, and the Kok-Aral Dam is raised in height (together with a low dam across the Chevchenko Strait on the other side of Kok-Aral island. Possibly, the Greater Aral could be restored, if the cotton-growing in Uzbekistan were abandoned in favour of a commercial, but less thirsty crop than cotton, and if the irrigation for food growing were restructured to use far less water, which it could, and probably should be, in order to avoid further salinity. Also, the Kara-Kum canal needs to be lined along its length, since it cannot now be closed without starting a war. I understand that the water level in the Sarykamish lake is actually going up!

    Finally, I am aware of the Semipalatinsk disaster, and I am not an apologist for the actions of the Soviet government in that regard, but in the case of the demise of the Aral Sea, I find the collusion of regional leaders of the then Kazakh and Uzbek SSRs at least believable. I hope to visit the Aral Sea area and see and hear it all for myself, one day.

  5. 5

    Kazakhnomad said,

    “Dr. Wright, I’m amazed that you gave me only one source (just one link) for your earlier erroneous statement. Obviously, Sergei Roy is a Russophile who happens to be a gifted writer in English. He is also promoting his book at the end of his link, so presumably this is taken from his book about the Aral Sea. I lose all respect for people who refer to Wikipedia as their source for information as Roy does. Anyone can write ANYthing on this encyclopedia website and they do. I tell my students that I hate Wikipedia and any academician worth his salt should NEVER refer to it as the last word or even the first word. I was expecting you to give me several sources such as from reputable engineers, agronomists or agriculturalists but instead you send me to a website that has no credibility with me or hopefully any Kazakh or Uzbek who would read it. I expect my university students to give me FIVE creditable sources on whatever they are looking up, you gave me one off the Internet!!! That’s anathema to me!!!

    I appreciate Dr. Martha Brill Olcott’s seminal tome titled “The Kazakhs” written in the late 1980s. However, it was published before the demise of the Soviet Union. She admirably used 100s of Russian sources that she translated into English but she only used about 17 Kazakh sources. Two problems, first, the Russian sources would purposely promote their side of the issue on anything related to the Kazakhs and second, the Kazakhs come from an oral tradition and do not see the necessity to write down what they know in order for the rest of the world to understand their dilemma(s). So, obviously the pen is mightier than the sword and the Russians have vanquished the Central Asians by the power of the written word, though erroneous and lop-sided as it is. Unfortunately, naive and gullible people believe anything and everything they read!!!

    Same could be said for the late Solzhenitsyn whom I admire immensely for documenting what the gulag system was all about, even making a imprisoned “visit” to Kazakhstan. Few would believe that men are capable of such atrocities that he witnessed and lived to tell and write about. Yet, did he care at all about the other nationalities, the Ukrainians, the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks? No, he too was a Russophile and only thought of his own country of Russia. Such blinding patriotism can be misguided and dangerous, especially for those readers who believe anything they read.

    I’m an English writing instructor in Kazakhstan, I want my Kazakh university students to find, dig, search, devour whatever subject they approach and find the chinks in the armour of the authors, even in peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles. Obviously, not everything that is written by academicians is accurate. That wouldn’t be fun would it? We have a plethora of “word wars” going back and forth as a result and many, many journal publications to prove it.

    No, not until you have lived in the country in question and understand the language and the culture can you begin to start writing what you THINK you know about a certain tragedy the Kazakhs and Uzbeks are grappling with. It will take several generations to undo the mess created by ill conceived plans from Moscow’s elite. The solutions and the fixes to problems that took 70 years to unfold will perhaps take 70 years to unravel and correct.

    My Kazakh students are expected to know Russian, Kazakh and English, this country is going tri-lingual and if any country of Central Asia will succeed, it will be Kazakhstan. I’m provoked by the hacks with a xenophobic mentality for Mother Russia who leave out the life stories of the Kazakh people who have weathered all the economic, political and environmental changes they have seen happen in this great land of Kazakhstan, particularly in the Aral Sea region.

    What is needed are careful and diligent ethnographers who can do laudable qualitative research in tracking down the oral histories from those who can talk about what they witnessed, what they know from their life experience before they perish. There is no population explosion happening in the Aral Sea area (of which Sergei Roy writes). It is simply ludicrous for family planners from outside of Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to come and harp about too many people in a land that was purposefully “minoritized” during the Soviet period. Kazakhs became outnumbered in their own land and I think if Kazakh or Uzbek mothers want to have babies, so be it.

    A Kazakh or Uzbek proverb speaks to this issue of family planning: “The house with children is like a noisy market but a house without children is a tomb.” Children are a joy and where there are no children, no happiness. I’m willing to guess that Sergei Roy lives in a tomb from where he is perched. At least he writes eloquently about a place that once was abundant with life but now is teaming in death. Water levels going up or down and man engineering which direction they go, well that’s a little like playing god, isn’t it? Seems there was a river that Stalin or some Moscow dictator wanted to redirect entirely from south to north to go vice versa. I forget which Russian river it was, I’ll have to go ask my favorite, former Sovietologist, he knows.

    Yeah, the Cold War may be alive and well even yet.

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