Before the 1960s, the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers ran northwest through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and drained into the vast fresh-water lake of the Aral Sea. A strip of arable land lay immediately adjacent to the rivers, with pasture land further away. The Aral Sea was full of fish and sustained a major fishing industry. The whole area enjoyed a benign climate. In the late 1950s, it was decided by Soviet agronomists to take water from the rivers to irrigate vast stretches of the plains to grow cotton and rice. For a few years large crops were realized. Then disaster struck. So little water was left in the rivers that the Aral Sea dried up with only a few marshy swamps now remain. Salt from the subsoil overwhelmed many of the irrigated areas, which became salt-desert. Chemicals which spread to counter the salinization poisoned whatever water left in the rivers: all the fish in what was left of the Aral Sea died, and the fishing industry came to a sudden end. The region became ravaged by salt storms. The local population has become impoverished and its health has declined. The loss of the ameliorating effects of the Aral Sea has led to climate change over a huge area of Asia. This has been the worst man-made ecological disaster ever. It shows in all its awfulness what can happen when large-scale environmental changes are initiated without understanding the full ecological implications.
The documents inscribed on the International Memory of the World Register in 2011 are the official records of Kazakhstan relating to the disaster from 1965 to 1991. They include decrees, circulars, letters, plans, projects and schemes, study reports, etc. The collection is the most important source for research and remedial action to the revival of ecological, social and economic development of the region.