Water from a large, climatically diverse watershed in Central Asia drains into the Aral Sea, which is a powerful reminder of the importance of sustainable water resource management. The Aral Sea basin occupies parts of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, and most of the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
During the Soviet period, the desire to significantly increase agricultural production in the lowlands of the basin, led to the construction of large-scale storage and irrigation infrastructure and massive diversion of water away from its natural course. This increased diversion of water for irrigation contributed to a drop in the level of the Aral Sea of more than 20 meters since 1950, causing the sea to separate into two water bodies, the Southern Aral Sea (SAS) and the Northern Aral Sea (NAS). Furthermore, it has generated significant environmental and public health challenges.
Seventy percent of Kazakhstan’s land area is considered degraded, including the dry Aral Seabed. Most degraded dryland areas are arid zones with Saxaul forests, steppes and pastureland. The situation is expected to worsen as climate changes further intensifies these impacts.
The NAS-Syr Darya Basin is at the heart of development of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region, one of the country’s poorest administrative regions. Important increases in productivity, innovation and diversification could depend to a great extent on how effectively Kazakhstan manages its natural capital.
The Kazakh government is reforming policies and institutions in its water resources sector. Nearly all forests in Kazakhstan are State-owned and managed by the regional governments; however, the government has decided to increase private involvement in plantations. Kazakhstan is committed to increasing the country’s forest cover from 4.7 to 5 percent by 2030, and also committed to international efforts to combat climate change and a sustainable low carbon future. Afforestation is not a new topic for the country.
Uzbekistan is a lower-middle-income, natural resource and mineral-rich, landlocked country that borders all other Central Asia countries. Since 2017, Uzbekistan’s economic policy has been re-oriented towards a competitive, market-led, private sector economy. Increases in productivity, innovation, and diversification of Uzbekistan’s economy could depend to a great extent on how effectively it manages its natural capital. About 8.4 percent of the country’s land area is covered by forests (3.68 million hectares). In recent years, destructive land use practices and weak governance have resulted in intense degradation of Uzbekistan’s forests.
Since their independence three decades ago, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been doing everything possible to overcome the consequences of the Aral Sea catastrophe in terms of the socio-economic and environmental impacts. The Kazakh government and the World Bank have completed a large project “The Syr Darya river control and Northern Aral Sea conservation” that resulted in a significant environmental and socio-economic improvement in the region. The level of the northern part of the Aral Sea increased to 41.4 meters, due to the construction of the Kok-Aral dam. The construction of the dam not only returned hope to people for better living conditions, but also had great practical importance.