How Blue Jeans are Drying Up our Blue Oceans: The Disappearance of the Aral Sea

The fashion industry is ubiquitous. Whether you see clothes as mere necessities or pay top dollar to rep your favourite brands, you have in some way contributed to this 1.4 trillion-dollar sector. Fashion has dominated for centuries, and a recent shift from durable production to lower quality textiles has birthed a new movement known as fast fashion that has only further empowered it. However, cheap clothes are just that- they have a short lifespan and increasingly leave customers craving new items. Furthermore, creating clothes is far less glamorous than the ateliers of Hermès and Louis Vuitton would have you believe. It involves the exploitation of precious resources, use of harmful chemicals, and substantial emission of greenhouse gases. So, while big players in the fast fashion economy are reaping significant financial benefits, developing nations across the world are struggling to mitigate the environmental damages imposed on them. One of the most note-worthy disturbances this movement has caused is the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

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Located in the heart of the Central Asian Desert, the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest freshwater body in the world. It provided a wealth of resources to communities along its shore such as agriculture, fishing, climate control, and a diverse ecosystem. For millennia, the lake experienced cyclical changes in water levels that corresponded with weather and land use patterns. However, sea levels began to decrease significantly in the 50s when the area became occupied by the Soviet Army who wanted to use the fertile land to grow cotton (or as they referred to it- white gold). To be able to successfully grow this cotton, they needed to implement a complex network of irrigation systems because the desert-like climate yielded little rain. The water sources for the system were the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers which also happened to be feeding rivers for the Aral Sea. This meant that as the cotton industry boomed, more land was cultivated to meet the increasing demand, and more water was diverted from these essential rivers to maintain the crops. While it had once taken millennia for the sea levels to drop, ‘white gold’ managed to reduce the lake to just 10% of its original volume in half a century; and the environmental repercussions were devastating.

As the water left the Aral Sea, so did the life that once ebbed and flowed throughout it. The decrease in volume led to increased salinity which became deadly to most species of fish that lived there. Without catch, the fishing industry died, and carcasses of ships still litter the barren landscape. Salt and dust replaced water and blew in storms that only further weakened habitats and communities nearby. Climates quickly turned from maritime to dry and extreme as there was no longer a large body of water to cushion the cold winds blowing from Siberia. Conditions became unsustainable for much of the wildlife and species diversity was cut by almost half. Within 20 years of Soviet occupation, the Aral Sea was declared a dead zone.

Through the early 90s and into the 21st century, several attempts were made to restore the area to its former glory. The World Bank and Aral Sea governments were the primary groups that spear headed operations. It took years of planning, recruitment of investors, and collaboration with the UNDP, UNEP, and Global environmental facility to devise a strategy that would sustainably rehabilitate the economic well-being of 50 million individuals. The most glaring issue that had to be tackled was that of low seal levels. It was deemed nearly impossible to restore the lake to its original volume, so alternate solutions needed to be developed. The desiccation of the Aral Sea had broken it up into 2 bodies- a small northern one that seemed to hold more promise, and a larger southern one. A dyke was thus installed in 2005 to block the flow of water from the small body to the large one which greatly improved volume and salinity in the northern lake and allowed for the reintroduction of black flounder. Other attempts were made to mitigate secondary issues caused by the desertification such as rehabilitation of the disaster zone, management of remaining water resources, interstate cooperation, and amelioration of health conditions. However, while in some cases, a valiant effort was made, the World Bank was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its goals.

This scenario plays out far too often when governments and large corporations attempt to mediate environmental disasters: empty claims are made, little planning is done, projects are run with no structure, and results are pitiful at best. One of the biggest shortcomings of the implemented solutions in the case of the Aral Sea was that they only targeted the symptoms rather than the disease. While the wellbeing of individuals and ecosystems needed to be addressed and treated, their health would only continue to decline until changes were made to the way agriculture itself was being performed. Cotton is essential to these communities. Even though it is destroying their environment, they depend on it to access foreign currency and it makes up a significant portion of their GDP. It therefore cannot be completely eliminated. However, the irrigation systems need to be changed as they are ineffective and are prone to extreme water loss. Furthermore, agricultural policies need to evolve with the changing environment. Even though cotton is essential to the community, it is too devastating in the quantities it is being grown. An investigation into alternate crops that require less water should have been performed and they should have replaced some of the existing cotton fields.

At the very heart of this problem, however, is not the World bank, the irrigation system, or even the Soviet Union; it is us, the consumers. Ultimately, we control the fashion industry and set the tone for what brands are going to produce. Fast fashion is only what it is today because we demanded it. So, to truly put a stop to the disaster in the Aral Sea and similar ones happening around the world, we need to start changing our consumption patterns.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

What Can You Do?

Lower Level/ ‘Easy Changes’: Become Educated!

The next time you decide to go shopping, actually read the tags! What are your clothes made from? Are they made from recycled material? Partly recycled material? All new material? Also consider the environmental policies of the store you are shopping at. Where are they sourcing their material from? How do they recycle clothes? Are they running any environmental initiatives to lower their footprint? If you are so interested, try an become a bit of an investigator, because often, the initiatives a company promotes are not as good as they seem!

Mid-Level Changes: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

The next time you have the urge to go shopping or impulse buy, think about what you really need! Do you really need that new top, or can you repurpose one you have at home? What is in your parents’ or grandparents’ closet? A lot of fashion is coming back! Also consider stopping by your local thrift store or consignment shop. It may take longer to find what you’re looking for, but the hard work makes the clothes that much more special. This type of thinking will not only help the environment but will also save your wallet!

Top-Tier Changes: A Total Shop Stop!

A shop stop involves completely putting a stop to the purchase of all non-essential items (this does not include food, sanitary products, medication, or anything else you cannot live without). However, for many (not all people), new clothes are simply unnecessary and, in many cases, wasteful. This is not a permanent solution but may be something you implement for a month or two. Throughout the first 3 months of quarantine I actually did a shop stop by avoiding online stores and only spending my money on food and sanitary products. Upon reflection, I realized that from April to early June I usually increase my spending habits and buy new clothes for the summer and any vacations I may take. By doing a shop stop I essentially avoided buying an entire season’s worth of clothing and am committed to continuing this into the fall. I also saved a ton of money!

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Referenced Material:

Chico, D., Aldaya, M., M., Garrido, A. (2013). A water footprint assessment of a pair of jeans: the influence of agricultural policies on the sustainability of consumer products. Journal of Cleaner Production. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.06.001

Crighton, E. J., Elliott, S. J., Uphshur, R., van der Meer, J., Small, I. The Aral Sea disaster and self-related health. Health and Place, 9(2): 73-82. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1353-8292(02)00017-5

Manschadi, A. M., Oberkircher, L., Tischbein, B., Conrad, C., Hornridge, A-K., Bhaduri, A., Schorcht, G., Lamers, J. P. L, Vlek, P. L. G. (2010). ‘White Gold” and Aral Sea disaster- Towards more efficient use of water resources in the Khorezm region, Uzbekistan. Lohmann Information, 45(1): 34- 47. Retrieved from: http://www.lohmann-information.com/content/l_i_45_artikel7.pdf

Micklin, P. (2007). The Aral Sea disaster. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 35: 47-72. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.earth.35.031306.140120

Mukherjee, S. (2015). Environmental and social impact of fashion: towards and eco-friendly, ethical fashion. International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies, 2(3): 22-35. http://www.ijims.com

Radhakrishnan, S. (2016). Denim recycling. Textiles and clothing sustainability: 79-125. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-2146-6_3

Sandin, G., Peter, G. M. (2018). Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling- A review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 184: 353-365. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.266

Wheeler, W. (2018). Mitigating disaster: the Aral Sea and (post-) Soviet poverty. Home/Global Environment, 11(2): 346-376. https://doi.org/10.3197/ge.2018.110207

2 thoughts on “How Blue Jeans are Drying Up our Blue Oceans: The Disappearance of the Aral Sea

  1. Natasa Rajcic

    Great article!!!! I had read about this and had seen a documentary about it a while ago. Very sad but many people aren’t informed and if they are, most will continue on with their spending habits regardless. Hopefully your article will inspire some people to reconsider how they shop and be aware of their purchasing power. Great job!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, that is the sad truth! Producing significant change in our environment is going to require a serious reconfiguration of the way we live our lives and many people are unwilling to do so! But, I believe making big changes requires small steps so I hope I can encourage others to start taking those small steps! Thank you so much for reading my article, it means a lot!!! ❤

      Like

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