The saxaul tree, native to the deserts of Middle and Central Asia. He-ba-mue, Wikimedia Commons

In Uzbekistan, a lowly tree afforests a lost sea

A new forest ecosystem combats the desertification of the Aral Sea basin

This article is part of a Landscape News series on Central Asia, published in conjunction with the 2019 Central Asia Climate Change Conference in partnership with the World Bank.

In one of the world’s newest deserts, water is most readily found in the spongy bark of saxaul trees. Gnarled and gray with scaly leaves, these trees appear ancient, as if they have long stood watching as the Aral Sea shrank from being the world’s fourth-largest lake to just one-tenth of its size, a water surface area the size of Ireland disappearing into sand.  

But in reality, the desertification of the Aral Sea only took some 50 years, and it is only in the last decade that these trees have only been planted here. In this arid landscape in the northwest reaches of Uzbekistan, the saxaul tree is a sign of a more prosperous future rather than an unfortunate past.

Reaching across the Uzbek-Kazakh border, the Aral Sea began to dry in the 1960s when the Soviet Union, which then included both Central Asian countries as member states, diverted the Sea’s two main tributaries, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, to irrigate cotton plantations.

Where fishermen once hauled in hundreds of kilograms of fish daily, supplying 98 percent of Uzbekistan’s fish, the water began to diminish, raising salt levels to a toxic proportion that killed the Sea’s fish populations before the water disappeared altogether. In tandem, pesticides and herbicides used to aid cotton growth leached into the sea bed, and then into the lungs of nearby populations as the bed became exposed to high winds. Rates of liver cancer doubled. Infant mortality rose. A ‘graveyard’ of rusted ship skeletons now sits at what was once the shoreline.

Rusted fishing ships sit on the former seabed of the Aral Sea near Moynaq, Uzbekistan. Yuriy Korsuntsev, World Bank

“The whole catastrophe of the Aral Sea has led very often to households [having] barren land and without traditional livelihood opportunities, which used to be fishing and livestock, in addition to the health issues” said Gayane Minasyan, lead environmental specialist at the World Bank, at the Central Asia Climate Change Conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in April.

“I would say that daily life [here] consists of making pretty hard choices of what to grow, where to invest, what to expand, whether there will be rain, whether there will be major climate-induced catastrophe that might impact their yields, how they’re going to be able to afford to send their kids to school.”

Central Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change, with many of its main challenges relating to water: glacier melt, flooding, desertification, changing precipitation patterns, mudslides, drought. The basin of the Aral Sea extends across the region, which continues to endure the effects of the sea’s drying. The eastern part of the basin, which in the early 2000s still had residual lakes, has now completely dried into what has been named the Aralkum Desert.

This basin has become a focal point for aid in the region. With funding from the World Bank, the Kazakh government completed a dam in 2005 that separates the northern part of the sea from the southern, and water levels in its territory have now risen by 4 meters with salt levels low enough to support fisheries again.

Life expectancy in the Aral Sea basin has decreased since the drying of the sea. Yuriy Korsuntsev, World Bank

More widely in the basin, the World Bank’s USD 38 million CAMP4ASB project, of which Minasyan is a co-leader, is giving climate-focused loans to help people improve their agriculture, water efficiency and income sources. As weather patterns and water resources become increasingly unpredictable, microfinancing for high-tech greenhouses, solar panels, beekeeping, resilient crops, water catchments and earth-friendly pest and disease controls is helping farmers adapt and earn again.

For Uzbekistan, though, the saxaul tree is a star upon which many are wishing. It thrives in salty, sandy environs, and when fully grown, it can fix up to 10 tons of soil, lessening the poisonous dust storms. “Rows upon rows of trees are being planted, which now cover some 500,000 hectares – a major contributor to the country’s achievement of its commitment of the same amount to the Astana Resolution, a regional restoration initiative that feeds directly into the Bonn Challenge,” said Paola Agostini, lead natural resource economist at the World Bank.

But human interventions in ecosystem conversion, especially one as drastic as this, can raise eyebrows about the ethics of interfering with the course of nature.

“It’s quite stunning that in a matter of 50 years, what used to be a marine ecosystem is going to turn into a forest ecosystem,” said Benoît Bosquet, director of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice. “I’m not aware of any other place on earth where such a dramatic change, an ecosystem change, has happened in less than a human lifetime.

“So, it poses questions. First of all, is it justified? It seems to be. There are very few alternatives to stabilizing the soil of the Aral Sea and prevent those destructive storms which blow up the sand mixed in with the salt and mixed in with the chemicals that are in there. Nobody really knows how much and which ones.”

But if some 3 million remaining hectares of the former seabed are also to be afforested, more eyes need to scrutinize the endeavor, he said. Monoculture is rarely, if ever, a long-term solution, and in such a harsh environment, research is needed to determine which species should be added to the mix. How can this landscape be used to grow food and other forest products that will re-generate the lost income of fishing? Could wind turbines be incorporated into the forest to produce clean energy as well?

“There is a recognition of the ecological catastrophe and the need for emergency measures,” said Bosquet. “But I think planning, environmental impact assessment, consultations with the local population, all of that needs to happen. And it hasn’t happened yet.” It’s only just beginning.



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