As a child, Bolat Bekniyaz was passionate about geography. He could find the Aral Sea and other landmarks on a map with no problem. He peppered his father, a hydraulic engineer in Turgai province, Kazakhstan, with questions about his travels for work: questions about nature, water and ecology.
From his father he learned the wonder of river environments and how human activity was threatening these delicate and vital ecosystems.
Early in his work career, Bekniyaz observed first-hand the environmental devastation of the Aral Sea. In 1986, on a research trip, he arrived at the “shoreline” of the Aral Sea – according to his outdated map – and had to walk nearly 20 kilometers toward the “center” of the Sea to find the water. Today, that shoreline has receded another 40-50 kilometers, reflecting the gradual (and tragic) disappearance of this once mighty water body that is now only one-tenth of its original size.
“Our generation was the first to witness the abrupt regression of the Aral Sea. The water became dark and lifeless. The fish disappeared and dead algae bloomed everywhere because there was no oxygen in the water,” Bekniyaz says wistfully. “Around the Sea, salt storms ruined crops. People started getting sick from all the dust.”
Today, Bekniyaz is trying to stem the tide of that “abrupt regression.” As the Director of the Executive Directorate of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea in the Republic of Kazakhstan (ED IFAS), he now leads a multi-national group in Central Asia committed to environmental restoration.
Recently, Bekniyaz and ED IFAS partnered with the USAID Environmental Restoration of the Aral Sea (ERAS-I) Activity. Launched at the request of the Government of Kazakhstan, ERAS-I is helping to generate solutions for reviving the Aral Sea ecosystem and creating resilience in the human communities of the region.
Their primary project is focused on afforestation of the Aral Sea bottom using black saxaul, a hardy shrub that can grow in salty soils and provides valuable cover for animals and other plants, creating a favorable environment for several levels of an ecosystem to flourish.
To test this idea, they have established a demonstration plot (the “Oasis”) about 120 kilometers from Aralsk, in the northern half of the Sea. The site features 30 plots of five hectares each that will be planted with black saxaul. The growing conditions of each plot will vary so the team can learn the conditions for promoting optimal growth of the shrub. While some plots are fenced (to keep away grazing animals), others are treated with hydrogel, a special substance that helps plants retain water.
In early April 2022, the Activity began its first saxaul transplantation at the Oasis with 62,500 seedlings. Another 125,000 seedlings will be planted over the next two years. The plants will be monitored by USAID ERAS-I and ED IFAS for four growing seasons to determine best practices to help this shrub flourish, while reducing the harmful sand and dust storms that plague farming and daily life in the region.
“Bringing the Aral Sea back to its pristine form is no longer possible. Instead, we should focus on creating a sustainable and resilient ecological system,” he says. “If we are successful, these methods can be easily replicated in other parts of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”
Encouraged by the project, the Government of Kazakhstan has pledged to plant black saxaul on 1.1 million hectares of the Aral Sea to scale up the effects of restoring the delicate ecosystems of the region. Over time, perhaps, Bekniyaz and others will see that Aral Sea they imagined in their youth – vibrant, resilient and beautiful.
USAID ERAS-I is dedicated to making this vision come true, one plant at a time, turning the dried Aral Sea into a true oasis.