Turning The Tide in the Aral Sea Region

Uzbekistan is looking towards a sustainable future

In the Aral Sea region of Uzbekistan, people’s health, food and jobs have vanished along with the lake. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, it has been shrinking since the 1960s due to water mismanagement. But the country is looking towards a sustainable future.

In Muynak, once a bustling fishing community on the shore of the Aral Sea, ships lie stranded.

The Aral Sea used to provide life and livelihoods to millions of people. But the lake began shrinking as water from the rivers that fed it was diverted for large-scale irrigation and cotton production. With high temperatures, evaporation and little precipitation, the Aral Sea is now only ten percent of its original size.

This has caused major challenges: fishing ports and farming lands are dry, drinking water is scarce, and dust and salt from the exposed sea bed have increased the region’s mortality rate. Children and mothers are particularly at risk: the levels of environmental pollutants like dioxins in the blood of pregnant women and nursing mothers are among the highest in the world.

A challenge of this caliber requires a new way of working. At UNDP we are trying to systematically transform the way we operate: experimenting more and being better at connecting policy with the latest innovative thinking.

We recently put together a multidisciplinary team that includes both innovation, technology and policy specialists—covering water management, rural development, climate finance and climate adaptation—to work with Uzbek and international partners in the region of Karakalpakstan.

Fishing ports are dry due to water mismanagement. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world.

The team is helping uncover key barriers to an integrated solution and what we’ve learned from previous attempts to tackle the Aral Sea challenge. We’re also helping attract eco-innovations and technologies to the region and propose the best practical solutions to the Government of Uzbekistan which can be discussed during the International High-level Conference on the Aral Sea on 24-25 October. The outcomes of the conference will define the next steps.

This is a move away from solutions that compartmentalize policy areas and objectives into neat boxes. That may be easy to evaluate but has little to do with messy realities.

Our initial work shows that improving water management is key to a sustainable future; one that improves livelihoods, strengthens food supply, and generally makes the land habitable again.

We’re aiming to tackle the root causes of the Aral Sea challenge and achieve systemic change—to ensure that people in communities like Muynak havejobs, good health, clean water and fresh air.

 Matilda Dimovska, UNDP Resident Representative in Uzbekistan
Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan
Twitter: @MatildaDimovska @UNDP_Uzbekistan @SDGintegration