Fifty years ago, the Aral Sea was one of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems, teaming with flora and fauna, and supporting the livelihoods of millions of people who lived along its shores. Today, with most of the water lost to irrigations schemes, the region is a dry, deserted and depleted wasteland. The fishing ports and farming lands are long gone, drinking water is scarce, and dust and salt from the exposed and now toxic seabed are increasing the region’s mortality rate.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called the destruction of the Aral Sea region “the biggest ecological catastrophe of our time,” and one that demonstrates that “men can destroy the planet.”
This is one of the priority challenges the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is addressing in Uzbekistan. Part of our work in this direction has involved the reforestation of the Aralkum region’s dry seabed, using plants that can help to both clean the soil and improve air quality.
Reforesting the Aralkum’s saline and toxic sands is not an easy task. If sometime in the future people try to grow plants on other planets, it may look a lot like this. The climate in this part of Uzbekistan is one of the harshest in the world, with temperatures ranging from -40° to +50° Celsius. Because of these conditions plants have only a 30 percent survival rate, but we refuse to give up on this project, and we are working with local farmers to innovate, test and develop new solutions to these challenges.
Caption: Location of the planting site
Why do we plant in such extreme conditions? Because that is the reality we all face after the Aral Sea disappeared. Toxic sands are spreading in the region, causing health issues and desertification. While one saxaul tree can clean four to ten tons of sand, a thousand or more can help restore local biodiversity, and ultimately lead to improvements in health standards and livelihoods of nearby communities. Moreover we are working with local forestry companies to plant the saplings, creating income generation opportunities for local residents.
Germination rates in these conditions are presently very low. To address this challenge, we have decided to experiment with the Zeba hydrogels provided by our partner UPL. We are now experimenting with different dosages of the hydrogel, in a search for an optimal formula. We have conducted regular monitoring of the planted saxaul saplings, and have collected data on germination and the effectiveness of various planting methods. In this way we hope to discover an optimal combination which will allow saxaul plants to thrive in these harsh local conditions.
We see the #GreenAralSea initiative as being a building block for a larger portfolio of operations – a set of interlinked engagement points which could lead to systemic changes in the Aral Sea region. Our intention is to test new approaches and methods which could be later scaled-up as part of UNDP’s SDG integration initiatives in the region, and also used in implementing the concept of transforming the Aral Sea Region into a zone of ecological innovations and technologies, as pioneered by the Government of Uzbekistan.
The initial target of our initiative was to plant 100,000 saxaul trees on 100 hectares of the dry seabed of the Aral Sea. Implementing such a challenging experiment proved to be quite costly. As part of our strategy to raise US$100,000 for this process, we decided to apply a crowdfunding strategy. Our first step was to spend several months undertaking due diligence, exploring the options available to us, mapping the issue, undertaking ethnographic trips, and refining our concept and plans together with colleagues both in UNDP and among our national partners.
From the beginning we decided that we needed a dedicated platform that would serve as a convenient way to raise money, while also generating broad awareness of the situation in the Aral Sea region. We therefore decided not to limit ourselves to just the existing crowdfunding platforms available online. Rather we chose to create our own dedicated website, that would both provide information about the Aral Sea tragedy, and be linked to various crowdfunding platforms that could meet the needs of any potential donor.
Challenges and opportunities
The launch of the GreenAralSea.org website in early 2020 initially created impressive results. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic expanded and the subsequent lockdown measures became stricter, we observed an 80 percent drop in donations. Austerity measures limited people’s ability to donate, and the focus of potential donors naturally shifted to the urgent health and humanitarian needs of communities.
We tried to make the website as engaging and interesting as possible, working together with professional editors and designers. On a practical level, the website has served as a gateway to direct supporters to the Giving UNDP Portal for making international donations, and to our local partners Aloqabank and PaySys for making donations in Uzbek currency.
The technical and organizational set-up process we went through was far from smooth, and in many cases we had to use a trial-and-error approach, applying different solutions in turn to find the best one. We will talk about this process in more detail in an upcoming blog focused on the technical aspects of launching the crowdfunding campaign.
Our results so far and the way forward
In the first nine months of the appeal we received about $35,000 delivered through 250 individual donations, being just 35 percent of our target. However, we did learn many lessons within this first phase of our experiment – implementing a crowdfunding campaign during an unprecedented health crisis. The associated restrictions and lockdown measures dramatically affected people’s ability and willingness to donate. The global pandemic, and the quarantine measures applied in response, also impacted our ability to conduct the awareness-raising events required to draw national and international attention to our programme.
The #GreenAralSea initiative was designed not only as an undertaking to test crowdfunding tools, creating a precedent for similar alternative financing initiatives which might be undertaken by UNDP in the future. It was also an attempt to try out innovative approaches for planting trees in the toxic soils of dry seabeds, and to raise awareness of the Aral Sea disaster’s impacts both in Uzbekistan and around the world.
Following the initial achievements of this initiative, we have made internal arrangements to transfer the management of the collected funds and the platform as a whole, to a UNDP project operating in the Aral Sea region. The range of solutions which have proven successful will be applied further across the UNDP portfolio in the region.
Another outcome of this project has emerged from the process of exploring crowdfunding opportunities. Based on the results of our early research, some partners who we work with have been able to develop and launch a similar platform called ‘My garden in the Aral Sea’, which focuses on planting decorative and coniferous trees in addition to drought resistant trees. This platform is being implemented by the International Innovation Centre for the Aral Sea Basin under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and the Ministry of Innovative Development of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
Lessons we have learned
While we are still drawing conclusions from our experience implementing the #GreenAralSea campaign so far, there are already some unique insights which we cannot wait to share. We have already discussed lessons learned with our colleagues in the global UNDP network, especially among our peers at the 92 UNDP Accelerator Labs operating with local partners in 116 countries around the world. We have also been able to share our experience with external partners, through platforms like UNDP’s Tadamon Crowdfunding Academy. We are proud to contribute to the surging use of and demand for crowdfunding platforms around the globe.
Our experience has revealed that crowdfunding is not a straightforward process, with a lot depending on building networks of supporters, delivering messages effectively, and creating effective engagement with allies and supporters (in a general sense). It also taught us the importance of mobilizing not only local but also international supporters around such themes. After all, crowdfunding is much more than just about collecting donations. It is also about mobilizing people around an idea, and giving them a platform on which to have their say and make contributions.
Amidst the pandemic we had to revise our plans for in-person outreach and awareness-raising campaigns, and come up with fruitful alternatives. Despite all the limitations faced, we are proud that we have generated momentum and attracted the interests of journalists, photographers, schoolchildren, universities, and concerned individuals. We invite you to discover how we undertook awareness-raising work during this challenging year, in our forthcoming complementary blog about the #GreenAralSea communications strategy.
There have also been a few interesting and surprising outcomes in regards to the patterns of donations. For example, it was our expectation that most funding would be collected from outside Uzbekistan. While this expectation was partly realized, with only 19 percent of the total amount of individual donations being domestic, it was pleasant for us to see that they made up 64 percent of all donation instances – 160 individual donations out of the 250 made in total. This shows crowdfunding’s potential in Uzbekistan, and the fact that if people are properly informed, mobilized and empowered, they are willing to support crowdfunding initiatives even if they are not for traditional causes.
Another interesting aspect was the commitment shown by socially-responsible companies. In fact, 89 percent of the total donated amount was provided by our ‘Green Champions’, specifically companies like Huawei Uzbekistan, Future Enterprises and UPL. Working with corporate partners has been a cornerstone of our work on the campaign, and we will talk about this in more detail in another blog of this series devoted to partnership aspects.
The recently-launched 2020 Human Development Report calls for the application of new thinking as we emerge from the pandemic. We hope that our small experiment with innovative crowdfunding and reforestation, will contribute to the discussion of how development work can be transformed within the Uzbekistan context. As we approach 2021 with renewed enthusiasm for overcoming the many challenges in implementing Agenda 2030, the Paris Agreement and other global efforts, we look forward to working with local and global partners to convert the Aral Sea basin into an exemplary region of shared prosperity.
With this piece we start a series of blogs on the various aspects of launching and running the #GreenAralSea campaign, sharing our initial results and reflections, lessons learned, opportunities encountered and challenges addressed in the six months of implementing this initiative through 2020 and the unprecedent COVID-19 pandemic. This first blog focuses on the main outcomes achieved so far, and will be followed with detailed insights on different aspects of our campaign including its technical set-up, the partnerships we have formed, and our promotions and awareness-raising efforts.
Readers may also be interested in our earlier blogs on why we engaged with issues faced in the Aral Sea region, and on how we refined our initial plans as we learned more about the extent and depth of problems faced.
We thank our colleagues at the UNDP Country Office in Uzbekistan, the Alternative Finance Lab of the UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and CIS, and the UNDP Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy, for their enormous ongoing encouragement and support throughout the process of implementing this campaign.