Transforming Crises into Opportunities in the Aral Sea Region

May 25, 2021

The once vibrant and vast Aral Sea exists now only in pictures, and in the memories of those who are old enough to remember it. Photo: Iulia Galushina

For thousands of years, the Aral Sea was one of Earth’s largest inland bodies of water, straddling what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The name roughly translates as “Sea of Islands,” referring to more than a thousand islands along which fishermen would sail, bringing bounties of fish to markets along its shores.  Now, despite nearly 50 years of discussions on how to save it, its people and the regional economy, less than five percent of the sea’s former glory remains and local livelihoods are increasingly harsh and unsustainable.

The lake 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.

In responding to the crisis, a consortium of United Nations agencies including UNDP, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the UN Population Fund and UN Volunteers are working together through a joint programme called Sustaining Livelihoods Affected by the Aral Sea Disaster.  We, together with the Government of Uzbekistan and many other local and international organizations, have been working tirelessly over the years to improve the lives and livelihoods of those effected by the crisis.

Last week, the process was given a much-needed boost by a resolution passed by the 194-member United Nations General Assembly.  The agreement, which was drafted and presented under the leadership of Uzbekistan with the support of Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Hungary, Romania, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan,  Venezuela and Vietnam declares the Aral Sea region as a “zone of ecological innovations and technologies,” and calls on all countries, UN organizations, international financial institutions and other relevant stakeholders to ramp up their support to the region.

The resolution rightfully acknowledges the role that science and technology can play in overcoming the region’s challenges, and calls on governments, thinktanks and investors to invest time and energy into creating innovative solutions grounded in local knowledge – solutions I might add that could be used to address problems in climate change adaption elsewhere once proved to work in the Aral Sea Region.

Seeking sustainable solutions grounded in the bedrock of local knowledge is central to the Systems Innovation Approach championed globally by UNDP.  The idea is to rethink or reimagine development, using experimentation and risk-taking in intentionally-designed portfolios of projects, to create long-term solutions for stubborn human and natural problems. UNDP and our national partners are putting this plan into action to create a proposed Zone of Ecological Innovations and Technologies in the region.

The systems innovation approach was first introduced within the Government’s Aral Sea Concept Note, which was developed with UNDP’s technical support during June – August, 2020. In line with the strategy, UNDP also organized a series of capacity building activities for the representatives of the Government ministries and agencies, in cooperation with the Ministry of Innovative Development of Uzbekistan. The long-term vision of this approach is to develop solutions that could be used in other regions of Central Asia that are experiencing similar complex issues around limited water resources, desertification and health vulnerabilities.

Greening the brown through collaborative innovation with local knowledge

The resolution calls for efforts to establish protective forest plantations on the drained bottom of the Aral Sea, like those UNDP is currently working on since March 2020 to create a forest of 100,000 saxaul desert plants on the dry seabed.  The new Green Aral Sea project, implemented by UNDP’s national Accelerator Lab, will contribute to a number of health, economic and environmental benefits. The strength of this new initiative is evident in the fact that despite Uzbekistan entering COVID-19 related quarantine immediately after the project’s launch, a third of the intended forest has been financed through crowdfunding – with most contributions coming from ordinary Uzbek citizens.

As highlighted in the UN Resolution, seeing opportunities for innovation in the Aral Sea will let us form comprehensive, innovative portfolios of solutions with the Government of Uzbekistan and other key stakeholders, developed through learning and experimentation, with the end goal being transformative and sustainable change towards brighter, and greener, horizons.  

UNDP’s programme of innovation is led by its SDG Integration team, which has selected Uzbekistan among the first set of countries, where dedicated support is now extended to identify innovative solutions to a complex, long-standing development challenges. From the climate crisis and pandemics to rising inequalities and protracted conflict – the SDG Integration team recognizes that such challenges cannot be dealt with in isolation. The way countries respond and the solutions they develop must be integrated into a systemic approach.

Background and context

The President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, first proposed creating the Zone of Ecological Innovation and Technologies in August 2018 at the IFAS Conference in Turkmenbashi city. UNDP has arranged two multidisciplinary missions during 2019 to explore design options for integrated solutions in the Aral Sea region. In October 2019, the United Nations team in Uzbekistan supported the Government to organize a high-level conference attended by UN member state representatives, donors, technical experts and specialists, to put this process in motion. This event was followed by the ‘Give Life to Aral’ conference held on November 4, 2020, which presented to national and global partners and public the groundwork laid in the past year to adapt the Aral Sea region into a space for incubating new ideas. The event attracted attention to the greater application of data-driven planning and risk assessment, the introduction of systems thinking, and work undertaken to unlock new sources of long-term financing in lieu of short-term, piecemeal funding.

There are two primary financing instruments through which development cooperation partners can channel their support. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea was set neighbouring countries to address international challenges of an economic, social or humanitarian nature; while the multi-partner UN Trust Fund focused on human security. The latter has been in place since 2017 with funding from UN partners, the European Union and the governments of Finland, Korea, Norway and of Uzbekistan.

Going forward, UNDP will focus on supporting the region in two ways: using data to drive strategic interventions, and applying systems approaches to shaping project investments. UNDP leads and supports two of the three working groups of the Advisory Committee - on Sustainable Investments and Data and Assessments. The data and analytics track is creating an evidence base (using climate and development data) to drive strategy and planning in the region. It also is supporting the development of dynamic technical infrastructure for sustainable data sharing, enabling systems analysis over time. For that purpose, UNDP has commissioned Columbia University’s Earth Institute to do a climate risk assessment that would combine seemingly disparate and traditionally siloed indicators of climate change to understand how the connections between indicators might contribute to changes and create future conditions. Meanwhile, the systems track within Sustainable Investments working group aims to create a coherent, future-fit portfolio (of project investments) that is appropriate for complexity, uncertainty and rapid changes in the region, and nurture systems thinking capabilities that will guide the navigation of complex, interconnected development issues in the region.

Currently, UNDP also is supporting the Government to coordinate the process of developing the Integrated Roadmap for the sustainable development of the Aral Sea region, which will outline the mechanism of operationalization of the UN Resolution and the Concept Note, and will combine all the initiatives and interventions in the Aral Sea Region under a single platform.

I very much look forward to exploring additional avenues for cooperation with the countries and partners that cosponsored this important UN resolution.  Together, and within the guiding framework of Agenda 2030, we will work to ensure the region indeed becomes an exemplary beacon of light for “peace, stability and sustainable development in the Central Asian region.”

Note: For more images of the Aral Sea taken by photographer Iulia Galushina, please see this link.