Under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands Program, Soviet policymakers decided to divert the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers from the Aral Sea to desert agricultural programs. This program shrank the Aral Sea and destroyed the regional ecosystem.
Because the Soviet Union needed grain but did not want to purchase it on the world market, central planners decided to irrigate dry steppes near the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, ignoring the potential for destruction to the areas those rivers normally fed. The water diverted into irrigation canals largely leaked away into the sandy soil, with little reaching the new collective farms. The farms failed, but not until heavy fertilization and pesticides polluted the area. Starved of water, the Aral shrank from the world's fourth-largest saline lake to a tenth its original size, breaking into four separate basins, and its salinity increased tenfold. The now-dry eastern basin is called the Aralkum Desert.