About the Aral Sea region in a few words – "There is hope"!

About today's Aral Sea region, she says literally a few words - THERE IS HOPE, and when talking about the dried bottom of the Aral Sea, she plunges into a world full of valuable finds and discoveries

Posted December 16, 2021

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Galina Vladislavovna Stulina, soil scientist, a PhD in Biology, participant of many regional and international projects, leader of at least a dozen expeditions along the dried seabed of the Aral Sea, the most recent of which were supported by the United Nations Development Programme in Uzbekistan. About the sea that is no longer there, about the career choice, about the prospects of the Aral Sea region, and about the components of women's success in science!

What influenced your choice of, you must agree, a rather rare occupation of soil scientist-agrochemist? Who motivated and supported you?

  • My parents are graduates of the forestry department of an agricultural institute. My mother came from Russia during the war and worked all her life in the mountains in Sukok. She was a specialist in forest reclamation, and planted the first rainfed garden in Uzbekistan there. My father worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, and was also often on expeditions and missions. I got used to this kind of life. I graduated from the Tashkent School No. 18, a math school, , then got admitted to the Department of Physics, which was trendy in those years. I didn't like there, so after six months I got a job at the soil institute in the laboratory of a very famous soil scientist-erosionist - Viniamin Borisovich Gusak. It just so happened to be the year of the earthquake. Six months later, I went to Moscow to apply to Lomonosov Moscow State University. I graduated from the Department of Soil, Chair of Physics and Soil Reclamation, and returned to Tashkent. Then postgraduate studies; I defended my dissertation at Moscow State University. My work is about  water, soil, and modeling. Under the postdoc grant, I wrote a research paper in Portugal, in Lisbon. According to my colleague with whom we studied the issues of water consumption and the impact of climate on water consumption, I am a "self-educating machine". I have worked very hard in this area, but my true love is the Aral Sea!

About the Aral Sea region:

- The Aral Sea region is essentially everything that adjoins the Aral Sea. In terms of a basin, this is the entire basin of the Aral Sea. But in this case, we consider only the nearest Aral Sea region, populated, cultivated, with cities, towns and settlements. Its well-being depends, first of all, on water. That, in turn, depends on the water availability of the year. And in general, on the water intake in the upstream.

But we must remember that the Aral Sea region has a dangerous neighbor — the dried seabed, a unique natural formation, a new desert. And a desert means desertification. The effect of drying is very significant. The northeast wind carries dust, salt, and sand that covers up Muynak. There are evidences that the salt of the Aral Sea was found in the Arctic.

We would like to know the background of your current expedition: how did you first get to the Aral Sea, what picture did you see then?

- The first time, I got to the Aral Sea in 1995 with specialists from Israel. Then there was an idea to choose the tamarix as a tree, although we got used to it being a shrub. This tree grows in Israel, and it is a very expensive wood. I still remember my impressions of the trip along the Nukus-Muynak road along the Amu Darya riverbed, and I remember Muynak itself, which also made a lasting impression on me. It seemed to me to be the end of the road, one might say, the end of the world. But I didn't get to the sea that time.

The second tim, I got there with an expedition organized in 2005 by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation. The objective was to evaluate the planting of saxaul on the dried seabed on an area of about 30,000 hectares. It should be noted that these plantings have been very well preserved so far, as an illustrative example for our foresters. We observed almost one hundred percent germination and a very good condition of the seedlings. That expedition began with Akpetki. Akpetki is a former system of lakes, the eastern part of the dried seabed. A very interesting territory. There are islands and there are lakes that, alas, are drying up. And then we studied the Muynak part adjacent to the Jyltyrbas Bay. That is, on those expeditions we covered the entire territory of the bottom.

Is it difficult to lead an expedition?

- I am the only woman on expeditions all the time, but I must say that an expedition is somewhat of a family. If it's not a family, not a friendship, not a team, then it's very difficult to work. But we have built a group that was able to unite in such difficult conditions. Everyone helped each other, supported, and it was not difficult for me to manage the team.

The most recent expeditions were supported by UNDP. The work was very well organized and therefore it was easy for us to do monitoring. In addition to our specialists, other experts who had not worked with us on expeditions before were also involved. We managed to travel almost 5,000 kilometers and describe roughly over 2,000 points along our route.

During the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed to declare the Aral Sea region a zone of ecological innovations and technologies. The initiative received global support, and as early as in May of this year, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the relevant resolution. At the same time, in order to attain the objectives set, it is necessary to have a complete understanding of the current state of the environmental disaster zone as wel las the changes taking place there. To this end, UNDP, within the framework of the Joint Program with UNESCO "Addressing the urgent human insecurities in the Aral Sea region through promoting sustainable rural development" funded by the UN Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea Region in Uzbekistan, supported two expeditions of the Scientific Information Centre of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission of the Central Asia (SIC ICWC), which were held in the autumn of 2019 and the spring of 2020. Representatives of the Aral Sea International Innovation Center under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, as well as specialists in ecology, soil science, hydrogeology, dendrology, botany and GIS were involved in monitoring the state of the dried sea bed. The total coverage of the study area was 1.2 million hectares, from Chink to the Akpetki Island System, and from the water's edge to the historical sea level.

- Organizing an expedition is a long process, it is necessary to carefully think through everything. Since the territory is large, we had to set up several camps. In the Muynak part, we had four or five camps. We usually make meal arrangements independently, but this time we first had a large group of 14 people, and we had to take a cook with us. Every morning we got into cars and followed a premeditated route. By the way, when developing routes, satellite images are used. They are processed, uncontrolled classification is made, and routes are developed according to the type of surface in such a way that they cover wells of the groundwater level, forest plantations, that is, all the sites and zones that are interesting for us to study.

And then the most exciting things began. Each of us focused on studying the area around, the change of vegetation, landscape, and soil cover. And when someone noticed something interesting,  our car convoy stopped, and the GIS team was the first to enter the field of research. Their job  was to identify the point, its coordinates, to make photos of all four sides, and to wait for me to process the soil profile cut. A cut is usually made to a depth of 2.5 m, but in our case, ground water was located at such a depth, so our profile cut, as a rule, did not exceed 1.5 m-1.8 m. Armed with a knife, I went down the steps of the resulting profile cut and, going lower and lower, highlighted the genetic horizons of the soil. I took samples from below so as not to damage or confuse them with other ones. There were 56 such soil profile cuts during two expeditions. This took a lot of time, during which the rest of the expedition members (geobotanists, hydrogeologists, dendrologists) described their research subjects. We passed the rest of the points with different specialists; I could only capture the surface appearance. We described each route in great detail from point to point. In the evening, all this information was collected and recorded in a single general table.

The territory was large - during two expeditions, 1,200 km were covered and the total mileage was about 5,000 km. But it was extremely  interesting. For example, dendrologists needed to look at the state of vegetation, how well the saxaul felt. We saw some saxaul diseases; locusts were found somewhere, etc. Geobotanists discovered medicinal plants. Each specialist found something important according to their profile, and then all this is combined together and we get a general picture of what is there.

It was quite cold during the autumn expedition. On the other hand, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the spring expedition was delayed and was held in the summer, almost in June. Hence it was very hot, the expedition turned out to be quite difficult. A lot of dunes, a lot of sand. But the result was worth it.

As Galina Stulina noted, in the period from 2005 to 2011, SIC ICWC jointly with representatives of international organizations held comprehensive expeditions, including soil, hydrogeological and geobotanical studies, using satellite imagery data. The present expeditions made it possible to determine the methods for retrospective analysis of satellite images of that period, to prepare thematic territorial GIS maps, to compare changes in landscape classes and risk zones over the past 10 years. The data obtained provide scientists with a unique opportunity to study the processes of the formation of natural landscapes on the dried seabed.  Detailed information and conclusions of the expeditions are included in the book "Monitoring the Dried Seabed of the Aral Sea", which was released in English and Russian in 2021. 

- However, we have not covered another 1.5 million hectares. Our objective now is to get funding, finish this, and we plan to create a geoinformation system. We are also working closely with foresters, discussing the possibilities of joint application of the results obtained, since forest plantations are the most important thing on the dried seabed. They [forestry representatives] determine where to plant forests, and we provide information about the territory.

The geoinformation system of the dried seabed will serve as a reliable basis for all subsequent work on the introduction of ecological innovations and technologies in the Aral Sea region, and will also become a utility tool for representatives of forestries.

In 2020, UNDP provided assistance in strengthening the technical and institutional capacity of the Takhtakupyr State Forestry in Karakalpakstan to plant forests on the territory of 150 hectares of the dried bed of the Aral Sea and create nurseries for growing seedlings on an area of 49 hectares. Efforts to green the seabed are expected to improve the strength of local land and increase its resilience to climate change.

How can the situation in the Aral Sea region be changed?

- The dried seabed is a unique natural formation from the point of view of a soil scientist: something is degrading while, in parallel,  something new is being formed. This is a kind of "living organism" that is fighting for survival. The territory of more than 4,000 hectares is self overgrowing. The soil composition is also constantly changing: desert-sandy soil is formed on the seaside wet salt marsh after 10 years of the saxaul growth. It is also very interesting from the point of science, not just from the point of  of practice, how, for example, to use the dried seabed or at least to establish an ecological balance, because the northeast wind carries sand, salt and dust to Muynak and beyond. Studies show that the Aral Sea salts are found even in the Arctic. In Karakalpakstan, local residents often have eye and lung diseases, and therefore, of course, it is necessary to create conditions to capture the sandy seabed. In addition, the water regime is completely unregulated. We have several wetlands, a fishing bay, the Muynak Bay there. It turns out that if the year is very watery, then the reservoirs overflow and the saxaul dies. Instead of the saxaul, the tamarix survives. If the next year is dry and there is no water, the tamarix dries up, and the saxaul is no longer there. It is necessary to establish an efficient  management of water resources on the dried seabed, otherwise this water is of no use, it can, on the contrary, cause a negative impact. Or, take the oil and gas poeple: water makes a problem for them, they divert it  from their wells, but the water is discharged in the wrong place. Such an imbalance distorts the water regime. There are a lot of issues that need to be address since, everything is interconnected. Therefore, we very much hope for expeditions to Akpetki.

If your recommendations are heard, what is the prospect of the Aral Sea?

- About the Aral Sea region, I can say a few words – "There is hope". These are the  words that now refer to the Aral Sea region. Because the Aral Sea region, which was until recently, is a completely different Aral Sea region. Of course, we must say many thanks to the president, who for the first time made such a decision to make the Aral Sea region a zone of innovations, and he did it. The UN Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund has been organized, and a lot of work is being done in this area. Therefore, there is really hope. Of course, we want stability to make sure that what is being done now will sustain afterward . And what is now laid there should be the basis of the future, and there should be some kind of sustainability. This is what the hope means.

Based on your own experience, what would you recommend to girls and women who want to start their way into the world of science?

- I know that not all of my graduates have stayed in this profession, but I love it. It is my trade. Whatever I have to work with, everything leads to soil science. When I'm on an expedition, I forget about everything. Nothing exists but just this. I'm just completely immersed into it. I have a very good visual memory. For example, I can now fully imagine all the dried areas where I traveled. When I go down into a soil profile cut, it's like I see something alive there, that is, I feel it. So, when you ask me how to pursue science, I can only give a few pieces of advice, because everyone comes to science in different ways. A lot depends on the specialty. Mine, for example, requires field trips — that's one thing. If a person works at one place, does not go anywhere — that's a quite different thing. I managed to do this, and I believe that if you have such a specialty as mine, you need to have a strong back up to help. If you are not supported in your life, then, I think, it will be simply impossible for you to immerse in your trade. A woman must make sure that her children and her family are fine. She should not drag her child to somewhere in the field trip. She should think only about her trade and enjoy her work.

What else does anyone need in science? One needs passion. One needs to be committed to this trade. And for a woman, I think, self-sufficiency is a very important thing. A woman should be self-sufficient in any case, in any profession, especially in science. She should be confident in herself, she should know that she is a scientist, she is a personality and she should be respected. Achivimg a milestone is not about earning Ph.D, it is a secondary thing required by the public and social position to be able to create further.

Pursuing science is when ideas and working hypotheses are formed in your head, and you must definitely check them, otherwise there is no rest for you. Family, children exist in your life, they bring you joy, but there is also something that belongs to you, your head, your thoughts. A woman of science needs a good life organization to have everything in her life.

Yes, it's not easy. But you need to be able to do it. I know by myself. That's why I say, one needs a back-up and mutual understanding in the family. And interest in everything in life, the ability to have fun. And the interest should be contagious to others.

Education is, of course, the way to science, the beginning of pursuing science. Poorly educated person will not be good at science. And also a successful choice of career, and not being afraid to look for it, not being afraid to give up the wrong way, and finding a trade to your liking. There won’t be success in science, if you are in the trade you don’t like.

Within the framework of its activities, the United Nations Development Programme provides assistance in promoting the foundations and principles of gender equality in Uzbekistan to ensure equal access to education for girls and boys; to create favorable conditions for women and youth in science.