In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union government decided to withdraw, through the use of canals,
the water of the two rivers (Syr Darya and Amu Darya) that flowed into the lake
in an attempt to irrigate the desert to grow rice, melons, cereals, and to water the newborns vast cotton fields of the surrounding areas.
This was part of the cotton intensive plan for the Soviet regime, which was intended to make Russia one of the major exporters.

The construction of irrigation canals began on a large scale in the 1940s. Most of them were built hastily, allowing water to filter or evaporate.
From 1960 to 1998 the surface of the lake had decreased by about 60% and its volume by 80%.
In 1960, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of ​​68,000 km2 and a volume of 1,100 km3,
while since 1998 the area has shrunk to 28,687 km².
In the same period, salinity increased from 10 to 45 g / l.
Since 1987 the lake has been divided into two distinct lakes, the north and the south, due to the continuous withdrawal of water.

In 2004 the surface of the Aral Sea was only 17,160 km², 25% of its original extent, while salinity had increased almost five times, killing most of the flora and fauna.
In 2007 the surface of the lake had further reduced up to 10% of its original size.
The withdrawal of the Aral North has been partially reversed thanks to the construction of a dam, but the remains of southern Aral continue to disappear.