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 In 1986, on a research trip, he arrived at the “shoreline” of the Aral Sea – according to his outdated map – and had to walk nearly 20 kilometers toward the “center” of the Sea to find the water.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.
very year on June 5, we mark World Environment Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate our life-giving biosphere, without which we cannot exist. This year’s World Environment Day theme is “ecosystem restoration”.
“On this day, we should pause to remember the environmental tragedy of Central Asia – the Aral Sea crisis,” says Vadim Sokolov, Head of the Department for Project Implementation of the Aral Sea Basin under the Uzbekistan Executive Directorate of IFAS. “This is the day when we should remind ourselves and the world that we need to unite our efforts to save the Aral Sea,” he adds.
As the son of a family of water engineers, Vadim’s entire life has been intertwined with water, and his choice of profession was clear – he graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering in Hydrotechnical Construction from the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers. After spending many years working to introduce Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles in Uzbekistan, Vadim began work on addressing the problems of the Aral Sea. For many years he implemented various projects related to implementation of the projects, including coordinating the efforts of all the states of Central Asia. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to return the Aral Sea to its initial size, but what we can do today is begin to restore the ecosystem, to help the people living there and the environment,” he reflected.
The desiccation of the Aral Sea is the result of water extraction from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers during the Soviet era for irrigation of cotton and wheat. These unsustainable water management practices transformed the world’s fourth largest inland lake into two bodies of water, consequently, the lake today is just one-tenth its original size. In its prime, the region’s economy was heavily dependent on the Aral Sea, and included a robust fishing industry that is in considerable decline today.
Forty million people live within the Aral Sea Basin(link is external), which extends across the five countries of Central Asia, including the four million people who live in the immediate environs of the lake. The Aral Sea region include most of Karakalpakstan and the Khorezm regions of Uzbekistan, the area of Dashowuz in Turkmenistan, and the Kzyl-Orda province in southern Kazakhstan. An overwhelming majority of the sea bottom is heavily salinized, and the population experiences sand and dust storms for three months of the year, severely polluting the environment and impacting human health.
During the past three decades, restoration of the Aral Sea ecosystem has focused mainly on afforestation of the drained seabed to mitigate the sandstorms that cause erosion and further degrade the fragile soils.
“I believe that restoration of the ecosystem of the Aral Sea and appropriate management are key for the sustainable development of the region’s economy and environment. Regional cooperation is crucial to address these issues, and Central Asian countries should unite in their efforts between governments, NGOs, local communities, and donors, and take significant steps to restore the ecosystem,” says Vadim.
Following a request from the Government of Kazakhstan, the USAID Regional Water and Vulnerable Environment activity began to assess and develop an Action Plan to restore a portion of the Aral Sea. In June 2021, a team of scientists, led by Vadim Sokolov, made an initial trip to the region to assess restoration options in consultation with local communities. The experts took soil samples, examined possible pilot sites, and assessed partnership options with local organizations.
As part of the assessment and information gathering process, USAID, in cooperation with the Kazakhstan Executive Directorate of IFAS, held a virtual roundtable in May 2021. The meeting focused on developing restoration measures and enabled stakeholders from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to discuss lessons learned, best practices, and plan the next steps for the afforestation of the drained bottom of the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea assessment and action plan will be completed by late July 2021. USAID’s assessment aims to identify innovative approaches for afforestation of the drained bottom of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The approaches will consider the best ways to ensure sustainability of results and options for scaling up and replicating those efforts by local communities, governments of the region, and other donors.
Of the assessment, Vadim says, “This project, led by USAID, provides a unique opportunity to try new and innovative approaches for restoration of the Aral Sea ecosystem and to unite and improve the efforts of everyone involved in the Aral Sea ecosystem restoration. The USAID Regional Water and Vulnerable Environment activity’s assessment team is excited that the project will directly benefit the many people whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the Aral Sea”.