“I am sure that in the future, the Aral region will prosper.”

Regenerating soil helps a son revive his father’s legacy

Posted May 9, 2022

The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth-largest lake, but it has shrunk drastically as a consequence of decades of misuse.

UNDP Kazakhstan

“I remember it very well,” Zhandos Moldagulov recalls. “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.”

Now aged 52, Zhandos has lived most of his life in the Aralsk or Aral region, right by the Aral Sea, connecting the south of Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.

Before Kazakhstan’s independence, intensive, industrial-scale agriculture was widespread. Over time this took a heavy toll, with extensive wind and water erosion, and soils polluted by toxic residues and salt.

The landscape is now vastly different from the one Zhandos remembers.

“Back in the day 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,” he observes sadly. 

 

 

Zhandos Moldagulov, 52, checks the land use plan that is guiding him as he restores his family property.

A lake becomes a desert

What was once the world’s fourth-largest lake has shrunk beyond recognition. 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. There were once over 1,100 islands scattered across the Aral. The region is now completely landlocked, and suffering from high unemployment. Eighty five percent of the population have drifted 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. 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.

 

With the fishing industry all but gone, agriculture remains the only source of income for many.

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Taking a new approach

With the fishing industry diminishing, agriculture remains the only source of income for many. Zhandos’s father had 142 hectares where he grew vegetable and fruits–melons and apricots that were sweet and delicious. But limited water, high climate variability, and unsustainable land-use practices are degrading the fragile soils. It was clear to Zhandos that a new approach was needed.

Many farmers were keen to gain 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 event, or Trialogue, conducted in Almaty in 2019. It 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. They are aimed at smallholder farmers.

Zhandos attended 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 growing suitable crops.

It was important to him to bring his family land back to its former health and for a deeply personal reason. “By the end of the training, I knew which specific practices to apply to restore my father’s lost garden."

 

 

The Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by irrigation projects. By 1997, it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size.

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Slow and steady wins the race

Zhandos has successfully rehabilitated 101 hectares. He started 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. He improved soil drainage by planting salt-tolerant trees, where 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 shelter belt of white poplars. He plans to rehabilitate the remaining hectares when money permits.

“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 in my father’s garden.” His livelihood improved as his legume yield increased and his cattle herd has nearly doubled. He set up his own compost system with a production capacity of 21 tonnes and started using this organic compost as fertilizer to minimize the use of expensive synthetic fertilizers. With assistance from agronomists, 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 water from the main canal, which had been rehabilitated thanks to another UNDP-supported project, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Opportunities through Access to Irrigation Water and Infrastructure”.

 

 

As the waters of the Aral Sea receded, rising salt levels in the soil became a major challenge for farmers.

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Zhandos now employs eight permanent and 27 seasonal workers. This not only provides jobs but also brings hope. Zhandos proudly says, “It is hard to imagine that just because I increased my understanding of pollinator-dependent 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.”

For Zhandos, the changes go beyond money. They have been the glue that keeps his family together.

“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.”

And as the family continues to grow, Zhandos can truly say that he has not only fulfilled his father’s lifelong work, but ensured the next generation will enjoy prosperity as well.

“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.”