Rising to the Challenge of Uzbekistan’s Green Nation Initiative

More coordination and support needed to fully realize the campaign’s enormous potential

May 16, 2022
Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

In November 2021 Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev launched an ambitious and visionary initiative, called “Yashil Makon”(Green Nation), to plant 1 billion trees and shrubs across the country over the next five years.  The project will contribute to cleaner air in urban centres, saving lives and improving livelihoods. It will also help fulfill the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change and adapt to climate impacts.  In some parts of the country, the trees will improve soil quality and may help avoid or even reverse desertification.  

Initial results were immediately visible within days of the announcement as many organizations, mahallas and the general public were mobilized to plant seedlings.  According to the presidential press service, 85 million saplings were planted before the end of 2021, with an additional 125 million seedlings taking root in the Spring. 

However, although progress is proceeding at a rapid and impressive pace, without a comprehensive vision for the care and management of the tree planting, the fate and the viability of both the trees the programme will remain uncertain. To ensure success, nationwide efforts should be more coordinated to ensure the seedings are cared for and that their branches reach the sky as well as that the carbon reduction is credibly captured and later potentially traded. Innovative financing solution can be designed for its support and sustainability.

Photo: Matilda Dimovska UNDP Uzbekistan  Resident Representative and Zhusipbek Kazbekov The State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Ecology and Environmental Protection  Deputy Chairman 

The need for more Green Nation was underscored the same month the initiative was launched when, on 5 November, the sun and blue skies of Tashkent disappeared as a dust storm turned day into night.  The storm, which was concentrated in Tashkent and the southern Syrdarya Region, was the worst ever experienced since the country started keeping meteorological records in 1871. 

This extreme weather event coincided with the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, the largest and most important conference for the planet’s future. Delegates to the conference stressed that the climate in Central Asia was changing twice as fast as in other regions due to the drying up of the Aral Sea. Uzbekistan, fully aware of the dangers climate change is bringing, committed to reduce the emission intensity of its economy - the amount of greenhouse gasses released to produce goods and services - by 35 percent per unit of GDP within the next decade.

Description: Dust Blankets Tashkent – views from NASA Earth Observatory. Taken on 4 November 2021 and 5 November 2021.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview.

One of the greatest risks that come with dust storms in places like Uzbekistan is that the coarse particulate matter (PM10), which rose to 18,000 micrograms per cubic meter in 5 November, often contain much more than dust.  Much of this dust comes from the dry and deserted wastelands of the Aral Sea, which started to dry up in the 1960s as water was diverted to nourish the region’s thriving agricultural economy. In its place, a vast new desert appeared, permeated with toxic pollutants from industry and agriculture.  Those who lived along its shores either fled, or struggle for existence. Children and mothers are particularly at risk as the levels of environmental pollutants like dioxins are among the highest in the world.

Since the late 1960s more than 75 million tons of dust and poisonous salts are reportedly blown up from the Aral Sea’s dried bottom each year.  The Surkhandarya Region located in the extreme south-east of the country, is prone to garmsil or Afghan - dry hot winds occurring several times per year and carrying dust with speeds up to 20-25 m/s.  Aside from poisoning the air, these winds damage fertile soil layers and reduce productivity in the agricultural sector.

It is no wonder, the region has been the focus of an intensive Government and UNDP-supported afforestation campaign since 2018.  The seedling of choice in this campaign is saxaul, a drought-resistant plant being deployed on a large scale to protect the soil and reduce excess evaporation, improving the local microclimate. The 2030 target, set and achieved by the State Forestry Committee of Uzbekistan by 2020, was to plant 500,000 hectares with saxaul[1]. For football fans, this equates to more than 930,000 fields. 

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

The Green Nation initiative is well aligned with the UN 2021 General Assembly Resolution, declaring the Aral Sea region a zone of ecological innovations and technologies.  This landmark document, co-sponsored by 60 countries from around the world,  calls for research and scientific activities to recover and improve the environment, preserve water and other natural resources as well as enhance the quality of life in the region. UNDP fully supports this effort, and has organized a multidisciplinary team that includes innovation, technology and policy specialists to help the Government of Uzbekistan to design and implement a portfolio of integrated interventions.

Haste makes waste whilst preparation is the key to success

We believe that the Green Nation initiative, although admirably ambitious and vigorous, could benefit greatly through more thorough preparation and planning.  Successful afforestation and reforestation schemes require extensive planning and an ongoing commitment along with long-term investment and management to achieve the desired outcomes. In water-stressed countries as Uzbekistan, afforestation puts further pressure on water resources.  Forestry experts say that the key questions in afforestation are what kind of forest to plant, where, and how dense. 

Some countries have had tremendous success with afforestation programmes.  For example, China’s Great Green Wall project has reduced the frequency and intensity of dust storms. In Africa, Senegal has planted 12 million trees covering 40,000 hectares as part of a pan-African scheme to combat desertification in the Sahel.  Learning from other nations’ success and failures could help to reduce risks from unintended consequences. 

We also strongly suggest conducting a comprehensive feasibility study linked to a Greening Master Plan prior to the afforestation.  This preparatory phase is important to identify important ecological zones and planting targets, deciding which locations are suitable for planting trees, shrubs, or grass, setting up the monitoring system, determining the land ownership issues, ways of capturing the carbon reductions and planning the watering infrastructure. 

Moreover, an efficient coordination system is needed in order to align the efforts of various stakeholders. With different institutions involved in different phases of programme implementation, such as support for trees nurseries, planting, infrastructure development, maintenance, financing, monitoring, there is a critical need to ensure that all actions are well synchronized and coordinated. A strong leadership and coordination system needs to be in place to achieve the goals of the programme. 

Finally, a well-established and innovative financing model should be in place as soon as possible to ensure the results of the programme rise to the level of its ambition. The Government’s Green Nation Fund is a good start, but government/public investment alone will not be enough. Investment and financing sources must be expanded to attract and invest more non-governmental funds.  These could include international financing, private domestic financing and green/SDG bonds to meet the needs of sustainable forest management and forestry development. 

UNDP and its sister organizations, funds and UN programmes want to see this initiative succeed and we are ready, willing and able to support the Green Nation programme at all phases over the next five years of implementation. 

[1] https://www.bonnchallenge.org/resources/spotlight-uzbekistan