Hold back the shifting sands

Improving how land is managed in Kazakhstan

April 22, 2022
Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan
“I remember it very well. The Aral was formerly a harbour and a fishing port, supplying fish to most of the neighbouring countries. My parents were proud to live in this place with its abundant water, promising jobs, prosperous neighbourhoods and fertile land. It is my life’s dream to be a worthy son to my father, keep the farm I inherited from him productive, the trees alive, and then leave a healthy farm to my son.”
Zhandos Moldagulov, 52, inhabitant of the Aralsk, right by the Aral Sea, connecting the south of Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan

Before Kazakhstan’s independence, intensive, industrial-scale agriculture was widespread in the south. Over time, this took a heavy toll, with extensive wind and water erosion, soils polluted with toxic residues, and the formation of ‘solonchak’ (salinized) lands.

To make matters worse for local communities like Zhandos’, what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake might soon become a new, man-made desert. During the 1960s, the main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea were diverted for mass irrigation, and the sea slowly started retreating with devastating economic, social, and environmental consequences, impacting peoples’ health and well-being. There were once over 1,100 islands scattered across the extensive waters of the Aral. The region is now completely landlocked, suffering from high unemployment and migration with 85 percent of the population drifting away to seek a better life elsewhere.

Building on the findings and recommendations of the IPBES Thematic Assessments on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production and Land Degradation and Restoration,  sustainable land management practices have been promoted by UNDP’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Network (BES-Net) project to combat the effects of desertification, restore productivity to the land and support better livelihoods for communities in southern Kazakhstan. BES-Net is implemented by UNDP along with other UN partners (UNESCO and UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre) with the support of the Government of Germany and SwedBio, aimed at translating the findings from the IPBES assessments into tangible biodiversity solutions on the ground. Bringing together the science, policy and practice sectors, the project seeks to support the country’s ongoing efforts towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Target 15.3 on Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN).

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan
“Back in the days, I could almost jump out of my house and fall straight into the greenest sea. Now, I can only dream about it. I worry that we won’t be able to retain the sea for the next generations because of such premature policies of former decision-makers. For 25 years now, it has been impossible to see the waters of the Aral Sea from the house where I grew up. We have lost our homes, jobs, fertile land, and our neighbours.”
Zhandos Moldagulov

Disappearing sea, disappearing crops

With the fishing industry diminishing, agriculture remains the only source of income and employment for many in the region. Zhandos’ father had 142 ha of land on which he grew fruits and vegetables –  big melons, watermelons, and apricots that were sweet and delicious. But limited availability of water, high climate variability, and unsustainable land-use practices are degrading the fragile soils.  It was clear to Zhandos that a new way of working on the land was needed.

Many local farmers were keen to gain new knowledge of modern land-use practices suited to drylands and the harsh climate, and they gladly took the opportunity to participate in BES-Net’s policy-science-practice trialogue dialogue event, or Trialogue, conducted in Almaty in 2019, which focused on the interlinked issues of pollinators and land restoration. Building on this, sustainable land management training courses and demonstration activities are now offered by the ‘Kyzylorda’ Extension Centre with the financial support of BES-Net’s BES Solution Fund. The courses are aimed at smallholder farmers living on degraded lands in the delta regions of Syrdarya and the Aral Sea.

Through experimental pilot plots, farmers learned how to increase crop diversity; undertake organic farming on degraded lands; conserve pollinators; stabilize slopes, move sands and erosion gullies; rehabilitate topsoil and improve soil fertility; manage livestock and rangelands sustainably; and diversify their income through alternative income-generating activities. The extension centre’s learning support is vital in empowering farmers to address land degradation and desertification, transforming vulnerable, rural farming communities into more resilient and economically secure ones.

Zhandos attended thematic and ‘hands-on’ courses on how to run a farming business, manage seed banks, practice pollinator-friendly soil and water conservation, rehabilitate degraded or abandoned land through the use of pollinators, and grow suitable crops. “By the end of the training, I knew which specific practices to apply to restore my father’s lost garden.” This was important to Zhandos.

Revival: bringing life back to degraded soil

By applying what he had learned, Zhandos has successfully rehabilitated 101 hectares of his inherited land. He started the process of reviving his land by introducing measures to improve soil fertility, using crop rotation and intercropping techniques, and breeding the best-adapted varieties of bees. He increased the moisture content of the soil by covering it with plastic sheets, and on salinized soil, where the water table was raised. He also improved soil drainage by planting salt-tolerant trees – here, he applies irrigation only sparingly to prevent any further rise in soil salinity. To protect the upper layers of soil from wind erosion and incursion by moving sand, Zhandos has planted a shelterbelt of White Poplar trees. He plans to rehabilitate the remaining acres of his father's land when the financial situation is more conducive.

“The techniques we learned really work on these dry soils. It took about a year to increase my land’s productivity by half and to partially improve the productive capacity of the trees left from my father’s garden.” His livelihood improved as his legume yield increased and his herd of cattle nearly doubled. He set up his own compost pit with a production capacity of 21 tonnes and started using this organic compost as fertilizer on his lands to minimize the use of expensive synthetic fertilizers. With assistance from agronomists associated with the project, he planted apricot, apple, cherry, almond, and plum trees, selecting early-ripening varieties to ensure an early harvest. He has used his beehives to extend cross-pollination to double his yields. Together with his sons, he dug a canal to bring irrigation water from the main canal, which had been rehabilitated thanks to another UNDP-supported project called “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Opportunities through Access to Irrigation Water and Infrastructure”.

“My sons are no longer going to the regional centre to work as taxi drivers or casual workers. Now, we all work together on our land, and both of my sons have launched new businesses – one as a cattle breeder and another as a beekeeper. All of the fresh fruit and vegetables we eat now come from our own plot, saving us about US$ 1,800 a year in food costs. Soon, my daughter will marry, and I will have enough fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and money to organize a fine wedding and give her a nicer present.”
Zhandos Moldagulov

Zhandos’ business has also grown such that he now employs eight permanent and 27 seasonal workers. This not only provides jobs but also brings hope for a better future for the people. Zhandos proudly says, “It is hard to imagine that just because I increased my understanding of pollinator dependant cropping methods and began running a sustainable farming business, my whole family’s life has changed. We have a number of new neighbours who have come back to their ancestors’ land, and I am sure that in the future, the Aral region will prosper.

Over 700 farmers like Zhandos have been supported with access to resilient agricultural methods and technologies. Moving forward, a study on the links between climate change, land degradation, and water in the Aral Sea regions is being undertaken to explore how the three factors intertwine to affect economic livelihoods and jobs in the Aral Sea regions. The study will examine the extent to which these links can result in wider social, economic, and water-related impacts.

With the upcoming UNCCD COP15, good examples like Kazakhstan’s go a long way in building commitment among member states and inspiring action across levels. Improving incomes and livelihoods and conserving species, these efforts for restoration of the Aral Sea and Aralsk region will leave an indelible mark on the sands of time.