Aral Sea Shores pt. I – Evolved Communities

24 Apr 2016

This is the first in a series of blogs that present the results of the UN Aral Sea Joint Programme, specifically looking at the development of communities and alternative business. The second blog will look into how the programme reviews the human impacts of environmental change, and the third reviews how the programme’s impacts will be sustained into the future. UNDP Uzbekistan: Providing vulnerable groups with employment and incomes has been just one objective of the Aral Sea Joint Programme's work in targeted districts

By Blogging Consultant James Brindley

This is the first in a series of blogs that present the results of the UN Aral Sea Joint Programme, specifically looking at the development of communities and alternative business. The second blog will look into how the programme reviews the human impacts of environmental change, and the third will review how the programme’s impacts will be sustained into the future.

Every country around the world faces challenges. Some challenges are resolved through naturally changes over time, while others need focus, perseverance and thinking outside the box. As my home, Australia has no shortage of environmental, economic and particularly social difficulties – pride in my nation comes from its doggedly tackling these concerns for the benefit of all its citizens.

For Uzbekistan, a major challenge is the Aral Sea Disaster – a situation not created but inherited, but one whose repercussions are now coming to bear. While life can be difficult in this far western region, the combined efforts of UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, WHO and UNV, and tireless contributions by regional government, have shown what can be achieved.

The best way to see changes made by the Aral Sea UN Joint Programme is to visit communities and directly witness the work done there. The three districts benefiting most are Muynak, Shumanay and Kanlikul, which are some of the most vulnerable areas in the region, where 130,000 targeted individuals live. The joint programme’s regional work has primarily focused on the human security approach, with the goal of making communities more resilient to change, and helping people enjoy lives of fulfilment and dignity.

The localised success here has resulted from a bottom-up approach, where local development has been driven by over a thousand residents, approximately half women, who have played roles in formulating 54 Community Development Plans in the region with the support of the Joint Programme. Trainings have been conducted to ensure these plans are maintained and utilized into the future.

One area of assistance required by communities to different degrees has been improved infrastructure, especially better access to drinking water and energy provided through alternative energy sources. In a region with weather extremes, these services make all the difference to conditions in schools, hospitals and public buildings, and also at home.

“Thanks to the project’s implementation, more women can obtain benefits related to the water supply project,” said Ms. Ziwar Begjanova, a resident of the isolated Nogai community. “This has reduced the time and burden of water carrying, allowing people to spend more time educating their children, which will in turn have benefits for the upcoming generation.”

While building infrastructure is an important step in establishing economically-sound communities, what is equally important is giving those community members economic resilience. In an environment like Karakalpakstan’s with inherent limitations, the challenge comes down to using existing resources in the best way without causing additional damage to the environment.

The success of entrepreneur Mirikhan Nurjaybaeva is a great example of how small business can transform lives and expectations.

As a member of the Tikozek community in the Muynak district, for her the endless shells on the Aral Sea’s once-shoreline was forever a painful reminder. Now it’s a goldmine of potential. “As the sea has gone I used to wonder how to use the shells that now line the former seashore,” Ms. Nurjaybaeva said. “Thanks to the project’s support, I finally have the skills to use them and make an income.”

For communities that relied financially on the Aral Sea, it’s sudden disappearance left a gaping hole in their economies. Agriculture filled that space to some degree, an area in which the programme also offered assistance, but with poor-quality soil and the threat of desertification always on the horizon the need for alternative business was all-to evident.

Bringing in as much foreign resources and expertise as possible, the UN Programme has in four years set up 189 alternative business and demonstration farming plots. Business opportunities have ranged from shell-based souvenirs like those made by Ms. Nurjaybaeva, to the honey produced by Kuralbay Nugmanov’s bee-keeping business, and an influx of tourism initiatives that profit from the area’s historic splendour.

The impacts of these initiatives is hard to gauge, because the emphasis of work is always on knowledge-sharing. 285 job places have been immediately set up, 128 employing women, but the total number of businesses created through informal knowledge exchange is estimated to be as high as 5,000. Always the businesses have targeted the most vulnerable community members, for whom the benefits of employment go beyond making money.

Making a profit is not my primary goal – rather I am overwhelmed by communicating with people and seeing happy faces of customers who purchase my products,” said Anisa Kudaibergenova, a resident with a hearing impairment, employed in a sewing workshop. “Most importantly, I have met several wonderful new friends here and my life has become more interesting.”

In the target districts, the joint programme has demonstrated that with a different perspective and with the effective application of skills, abilities and resources, communities in even the most vulnerable parts of Karakalpakstan can thrive economically. The next step is to turn these localised improvements into regional shifts – please keep an eye on the ‘Our Perspective’ blog to read more about sustaining the Aral Sea Programme’s work.

James Brindley is the UNDP Uzbekistan Blogging Consultant

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