The portion of the Aral Sea inside Kazakhstan and the Syr Darya River that feeds it have been put on the list of wetlands of international importance protected under the Ramsar Convention, WWF Russia said on Thursday.
The 330,000-hectare area in Kazakhstan including the eastern part of the North Aral Sea, the gulf of Saryshyganak and the Syr Darya river delta, have become the country’s tenth wetland zone protected under the Ramsar convention. Signed in 1971, the convention includes over 2,000 wetland areas in 163 countries.
“The 'wetland of international importance' status means that its environmental significance is acknowledged at the international level and it will help to attract funds for conservation efforts,” WWF Russia said in a statement.
The area is home to 200,000 birds that nest in the area or migrate there, as well as rare species of fish, such as pike asp and Aral trout.
The Aral Sea, which is located in the heart of the Central Asian desert, was once one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometers. The Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation purposes.
By 2007, it had declined to 10 percent of its original size, splitting into four lakes - the North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea and one smaller lake between the North and South Aral Seas.
In an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea, a dam project was completed in 2005. The water level has risen as a result, and the local populations of fish and birds have started to increase.
Ecologists have described the shrinking of the Aral Sea as "one of the planet's worst environmental disasters." The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been essentially destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship.