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FEATURE STORY June 17, 2021

In Search of a Desert Oasis: Innovative Projects Imagine a Promising Future for the Aral Sea and Central Asian Drylands


Graveyard of ships in the Aral Sea.

Some say all hope is lost for the Aral Sea. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has almost disappeared, and it seems nothing can be done to revive its desiccated seabed, restore its natural habitats, and stop the toxic dust storms from decimating communities and livelihoods across the region. 

Yet if you ask innovators—from 28 countries across five continents—who submitted 158 proposals to the Global Disruptive Tech Challenge 2021: Restoring Landscapes in the Aral Sea Region, all hope is not lost. This five-month long competition was launched in November 2020 by the World Bank as part of the Resilient Landscapes in Central Asia (RESILAND CA+) Project in partnership with the Global Landscapes Forum, the Kazakhstan-German University, and Plug & Play—a business incubator in Silicon Valley, California. The competition was financed by the Central Asia Water and Energy Program (CAWEP).

"By bringing the Aral Sea into the focus of the world's creative minds, the competition aimed to crowdsource groundbreaking solutions to mitigate and even reverse land degradation in the Aral Sea and Central Asian drylands. Restoring degraded landscapes and committing to better environmental management can revitalize many economic sectors while preserving ecosystem services and natural assets. Moreover, making livelihoods more resilient reduces people’s vulnerability to possible future shocks, like climate change, pandemics, and natural disasters."
Lilia Burunciuc
Lilia Burunciuc
World Bank Regional Director for the Central Asia Region

The Global Disruptive Tech Challenge competition culminated in a virtual awards ceremony announcing the winning proposals. Grand prize winners received a US$5,000 grant and an opportunity to be mentored by leading experts from the World Bank and Plug & Play.

And the winners are…

Choosing the winners was not easy. The proposals varied widely in geographic focus and topic, from adapting know-how and lessons learned from the restoration of Iran’s Lake Urmia and California’s Salton Sea to holding annual electronic music festivals in the Aral’s seabed to raise awareness among youth of climate-driven landscape degradation.

The winning proposals featured a diverse range of innovations with great implementation and upscaling potential. Among them were state-of-the-art techniques to prevent the dispersal of toxic soil by winds in the damaged Aral Sea basin and a cloud-based pasture management system to protect grasslands and reduce rangeland destruction across the Central Asian region, proposed, respectively, by Dutch company NETICS B.V and Greek environmental engineering consultancy KartECO.

Spotlight on Central Asian innovators: honey gardens in Uzbekistan

Some local innovators also offered winning ideas. A project in the sustainable forestry category, proposed by Natalya Akinshina and Azamat Azizov from Uzbekistan, envisions establishing honey gardens in the Aral Sea basin. A horticulturalist and botanist, Natalya and Azamat have been studying the environmental impacts of the desiccated sea for more than a decade, and their proposal reflects the inventive thinking needed to transform this environmental disaster site into an area where people and nature can once again thrive. They envision planting drought-tolerant and salt-hardy trees, shrubs, and grasses that will bloom continuously from April through September, attracting bees, improving soil quality, and regenerating landscapes.

Natalya Akinshina with thriving native plants in the Aral Sea basin.

To make the Aral honey gardens a reality, Natalya and Azamat plan to adapt international irrigation practices to help grow native plants in water- and nutrient-scarce conditions. The honey gardens will contribute to increased biodiversity and healthy bee populations, which serve a crucial role in crop pollination. Moreover, the project will promote beekeeping and other green agribusiness sectors and ecotourism in the region, while improving food security and creating jobs.

“We are just ordinary people,” Natalya reflects, “who are passionate about bringing life back to the Aral Sea. This recognition will help us realize our dreams of transforming this region from the desert that it currently is into an oasis, one plot at a time.”

Investing in women in Tajikistan

Another winning proposal was from Khairiniso Rasulova, Muyasara Bobokhanova, Shohida Tulieva, and Farzona Makhmudova, a group of female innovators representing the Women & Society Association from Khujand, Tajikistan. Their project aims to strengthen the skills of thousands of women in Tajikistan’s rural Sughd province, where the Syrdarya—the river that once fed the Aral Sea—originates. The authors proposed establishing a learning hub where women can learn effective farming and irrigation techniques and exchange local knowledge on water conservation practices, thus facilitating communications among women across the Syrdarya watershed.

Syrdarya River.

Even though women in Central Asia enjoy the same land ownership rights as men, in practice they lack the decision-making capacity, confidence, and skills to have a comparable role. The project aims to inspire women to master and implement water conservation practices and natural resource management. In spearheading this effort, women in rural communities will become stewards of well-being for their families and for landscapes across Central Asia. 

“They say if you teach a man, you teach just one person,” Khairiniso reflects, “but if you teach a woman, you teach a whole family and community. With our project we hope to enable ordinary women to do extraordinary things by giving them a voice, confidence, and knowledge in good farming, water management, and landscape restoration practices that that they can share with other women in Central Asia.”

What’s next?

The Global Disruptive Tech Challenge is committed to the business success and long-term impact of the winning proposals. In the coming six months, world-class mentors for the World Bank and Plug & Play will provide the winning innovators with entrepreneurial guidance and opportunities to network, pitch their ideas to potential investors, and boost the start-ups into possible pilot projects and successful enterprises. Additionally, to provide the winners with a strong understanding of the regional context, the Kazakhstan-German University will hold a series of knowledge-sharing events for the innovators to gain location-specific business tools and learn from regional experts how to successfully address the issues facing the Aral Sea and the surrounding area.

Similar to the Global Disruptive Tech Challenge, World Bank projects like North Aral Sea Revitalization and Development and Climate Adaptation and Mitigation for the Aral Sea Basin Project for Central Asia (CAMP4ASB), as well as beyond the Aral sea basin—Resiland CA+, also seek to help affected rural communities across the entire Central Asia region in restoring landscapes, supporting livelihoods, and increasing resilience to climate change. In uniting the Central Asian countries, these projects aim to catalyze joint regional actions across shared borders and ecosystems and to explore new possibilities to address the degradation of landscapes and ecosystems across Central Asia.

Initiatives like the Global Disruptive Tech Challenge serve as a fertile ground for nurturing, strengthening, and showcasing the groundbreaking ideas needed to restore environmentally damaged land. They show how innovation can play a key role in unleashing new ways for collaboration across borders, sectors, and even generations. They also help establish valuable partnerships among all stakeholders, giving them a voice and unique platform to focus on landscape restoration solutions.

As we mark the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought and move into the UN Ecosystem Restoration Decade, let us boost our efforts to restore degraded land and landscapes of the Aral Sea, Central Asia and around the world into healthy ecosystems and to strengthen economic resilience against future shocks.