Feature Story

Kazakhstan: Conserving wetlands, providing livelihoods

September 29, 2016

Kazakhstan Wetlands
An essential site for migratory birds including globally threatened species, the Kazakh wetlands have been declared a UNESCO Natural Heritage site in 2008, the first in Central Asia.

For most of their life, Valentina Zhakupbekova and her family have depended on Kazakhstan’s vast wetlands to survive. Her husband helped support their family of four children with the fish he caught until he passed away. Left without a job and with a family to feed, she learned about a GEF/UNDP workshop that taught how to create felt textile products made from wool, a commodity in abundant supply in her town.

Today, she sells her popular handmade slippers, boots and jewelry in a local retail shop that she opened, and makes enough money to support herself and her children. She has also trained seven other mothers in her trade, including people with disabilities.


Valentina Zhakupbekova (second from right).

Valentina’s story embodies the changes that are taking place around the wetlands of Tengiz-Korgalzhyn and Naursum regions, located in the northern/central part of Kazakhstan.

These wetlands - covering an area larger than Switzerland - are a complex network of freshwater and saline lakes embedded in the dry steppe zone of Eurasia. They are an essential site for migratory birds including globally threatened species such as the extremely rare Siberian white crane, the Dalmatian pelican and Pallas’s fish eagle. They are also home to caviar-bearing fish and aquatic flora.

Since 2008, the Kazakh wetlands have been declared a UNESCO Natural Heritage site, the first in Central Asia.

One of the lakes of the Korgalzhyn State Natural Reserve.

From decline to revitalization

The wetlands, however, have not always been protected and for years have been exploited. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy around the wetlands fell into steep decline. Many villagers lost their jobs and were left with little work other than illegal poaching. Even more damaging to the wetlands was the unsustainable water extraction to irrigate farmlands.

Due to over-fishing and the dwindling water level, the population of migrating birds and fish began to decrease, and the area’s ecosystem faced serious problems.

To save and protect the wetlands, the Government of Kazakhstan, with the support of the GEF and UNDP, took bold steps to address the environmental and economic challenges related to poaching, water extraction and tourism.

The first step was joining the Ramsar Convention, the global environmental treaty for wetlands preservation, and adapting the country’s environmental and water policies.

By ratifying the international treaty, the Government committed to consider and incorporate environmental impacts when developing water management policies. The revised legal framework brought visible results: illegal fishing fell from 62 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2010 (data is based on the number of cases of the illegal poaching reported by local authorities); wildfires consumed only 300 hectares in Tengiz-Korgalzhyn in 2010, down from 15,000 hectares in 2004.

Park Rangers

Park rangers patrolling Korgalzhyn protected area.

The second step was to improve employment prospects. Key staff and decision makers underwent extensive training programs in wetland conservation and monitoring practices.  The project equipped protected areas with surveillance and patrolling units, creating jobs while simultaneously improving the capacity to monitor far-flung areas, which have led to lower incidents of illegal fishing, logging and poaching.

Furthermore, the steady influx of tourists has proven to be an excellent opportunity for the rural communities to develop alternative livelihoods. Business start-ups in communities have benefited from microcredit programs. To date, residents from 500 villages have developed business ventures such as building greenhouses, manufacturing souvenirs and clothing, bottling kumys, a national drink made from horse milk, and creating fishing ponds, among other ecotourism projects.

The third step focused on educating the public on the importance of preserving the wetlands through media outreach campaigns, educational materials and training offered throughout Kazakhstan. Three visitor centers were established, and environmental and biodiversity courses were developed for schools across Kazakhstan.

Looking ahead

Despite the project’s successes, further resources will be needed for continued management of the wetlands. The project has proven that environmental and economic goals can go handinhand through GEF assistance and partnership with the Kazakhstan government. The cooperation fostered during this project is a promising sign that the wetlands will be protected in the future, and help more people like Valentina create and sustain their livelihoods.

Visitor center at the Korgalzhyn State Natural Reserve.

Story and video: UNDP Kazakhstan / Patrizia Cocca, GEF
Photos: UNDP Kazakhstan / Patrizia Cocca and Peter Lallas, GEF