Feature Story

Pushing back the shifting sands

September 5, 2017

During the 1960s, the main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea were diverted for massive irrigation of vast cotton and wheat fields, and the Aral Sea started retreating – with devastating economic, social, and environmental consequences. The Aral district is now completely landlocked, suffering from high unemployment and declining socio-economic conditions.

The disappearing sea

There were once over 1,100 islands scattered across the extensive waters of the Aral Sea. “I remember it very well,” recalls Zhandos Moldagulov, who came to live in the Aral district with his family in 1967. “Aral was formerly a harbour and fishing port on the banks of the Aral Sea, supplying fish to most of the neighbouring countries. My parents were proud to live in this place, with its abundant water, promising jobs, prosperous neighbourhoods, and fertile land”, he says.

During the 1960s, the main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea were diverted for massive irrigation of vast cotton and wheat fields, and the Aral Sea started retreating – with devastating economic, social, and environmental consequences. The Aral district is now completely landlocked, suffering from high unemployment and declining socio-economic conditions. Over the last few decades, the population shrank by 85 percent, as people drifted away to seek a better life elsewhere. The remaining residents are facing serious health problems caused by airborne particles of toxic residues from fertilizers and pesticides, and highly saline sands that have been exposed to the winds by the retreating waters.

“Back then, I could almost jump out of my house and straight into the greenest sea ever. Now, I can only dream about it. For 25 years now, it has been impossible to see the waters of the Aral Sea from the house where I grew up. Due to the shrinking Aral, we lost our homes, jobs, fertile land, and our neighbours,” Zhandos observes, sadly.

Shifting sands

With the fishing industry lost, and other livelihood opportunities being limited, agriculture remains the main source of income and employment for many in the Aral region. But, limited availability of water, high climate variability, and unsustainable land-use practices, were damaging the fragile soils. In addition, productive land was slowly being swallowed by the relentless onslaught of the shifting sands, pollution, and dust blowing in from the drying bed of the Aral Sea.

Zhandos Moldagulov’s father had 142 hectares of land on which he grew fruit and vegetables. Zhandos remembers that his father grew big melons, water melons, and apricots that were sweet and delicious. “Since the Sea began retreating, a lack of water for irrigation, and the moving sands, resulted in us losing our lands and our garden. Our trees have dried out.” It was clear to Zhandos that a new way of working on the land was needed.

Many of the other local farmers were also keen to gain new knowledge of modern land-use practices suited to drylands and the harsh climate, and gladly took the opportunity to participate in Sustainable Land Management (SLM) training courses and demonstration activities offered by the ‘Kyzylorda’ Extension Centre. This training formed part of the GEF-financed, UNDP-supported Sustainable Land Management project being implemented in the Aral-Syrdarya district.

Zhandos attended thematic and ‘hands-on’ courses on how to run a farming business, manage seed banks, conserve soil and water, rehabilitate degraded or abandoned land, and grow suitable crops. “By the end of the training, I knew which specific practices to apply to restore my father’s lost garden.” This was important to Zhandos. “It is my life’s dream to be a worthy son to my father, to keep the farm I inherited from him productive, the trees alive, and then to leave a healthy farm to my sons.”

Revival

Over several seasons, through the application of agroforestry, improved soil and water management, and other sustainable land management practices, the farmers of the Aral region slowly began to transform their lands, enrich the soils, and improve their productivity and yields.

By applying what he had learnt, Zhandos has successfully rehabilitated 101 hectares of land. He started the process of reviving his land by introducing crop rotation and intercropping as measures to improve soil fertility. He increased the moisture content of the soil by covering it with plastic sheets, and on salinized soil, where the water table was raised, he improved soil drainage by planting salt-tolerant trees – here, he applies irrigation only sparingly to prevent any further rise in soil salinity. To protect the upper layers of soil from wind erosion and incursion by moving sand, Zhandos has planted a shelterbelt of White Poplar trees.

Gulnara Bayanayeva, another farmer from the area, is applying knowledge she gained on agroforestry, agro-investment, organic farming, and small-business management, to improve her agricultural yields and earnings. On 28 hectares of her rainfed farm, Gulnara invested US$1,500 to plant potatoes, melons, and almond trees using an agroforestry approach. With the sale of the harvested products, she made a net profit of US$750. She also updated her seed bank for the next season’s planting. During the second year of successfully applying these practices, she started breeding cattle, increasing her livestock from one to seven cows. She expects to be economically independent in the next two years, and is planning to set up a seven-hectare public picnic area to generate additional income. Gulnara believes that these new techniques and approaches will help her – and other women – gain greater financial autonomy.

Zhandos has also achieved higher yields since adopting sustainable land management practices. “The techniques we learnt really work on these dry soils. It took about a year to increase my land’s productivity by half, and to partially improve the productive capacity of the trees left from my father’s garden.” As his legume crop flourished, so his livelihood improved, and his herd of cattle grew from 17 to 35 head – which means that he now has enough animals to sell some at the market for cash. He has set up his own compost pit with a production capacity of 21 tons, and has started using this organic compost on his lands. With assistance from agronomists, Zhandos has diversified his crops, planting a variety of early-ripening fruit and nut trees – including apricot, apple, cherry, almond, and plum – to ensure an early harvest. And, together with his sons, he has dug a canal to bring irrigation water from the main canal, which had been rehabilitated as part of the SLM project.

For Zhandos, these changes have had far-reaching impacts. “My sons are no longer going to the regional centre to work as taxi drivers or casual workers. Now, we all work together on our land, and both of my sons have launched new businesses – one as a cattle breeder and another as a beekeeper. All of the fresh fruit and vegetables we eat now come from our own plot, saving us about US$1,800 a year in food costs. Soon, my daughter will marry, and I will have enough fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and money to organize a fine wedding and give her a nicer present.”

Zhandos’ business has grown, such that he now employs eight permanent and 27 seasonal workers, and neighbouring farmers employ a similar number of staff. This not only provides much-needed jobs, but also brings hope to this suffering region. “It is hard to imagine that just because I increased my understanding of sustainable farming, my whole family’s life has changed. We have become much more confident about the future. We have a number of new neighbours who have come back to their ancestors’ land, and I am sure that in the future the Aral region will prosper,” Zhandos proudly says.