Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

In the Aral Sea region of Uzbekistan, people’s health, food and jobs have vanished along with the lake. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, it has been shrinking since the 1960s due to vast irrigation schemes that sent the water elsewhere. Due to a number of initiatives, the region is now looking towards a sustainable future.

One of these initiatives is the #GreenAralSea campaign to raise awareness of the challenges, crowdfund resources from those who care, and then to turn the brown into green through widespread planting of Saxaul trees to clean the earth and air.

The following blog was written by Farida Ahmatiy, Head of Solutions Mapping of UNDP’s Accelerator Lab, and describes the process and the challenges, and challenges overcome, in their efforts to make a difference in one of the harshest places on Earth.

When we first launched the concept for our new initiative, we started with the name, because it is the name that provides a first impression of one’s work, and directs its impact. Going through photos and paintings in the Savitsky museum we noticed the Aral Sea's azure color and how vital the sea is for the people of Karakalpakstan.  Today, there is sadness in local people's eyes when they talk about the sea, their passion, and hope to make positive changes in their homeland. But as we know now, unfortunately, we cannot bring the water back, but we know that we can make it area green. That brought an idea to call the new Aral Sea – GreenAralSea to get back hope for a safer environment, clean air, healthier children, new opportunities, and a future.

Today many people know the #GreenAralSea and are helping us in spreading the word about the initiative.  

As there are not yet an abundance of  green NGOs in the Aral Sea region with which we could work, our team was responsible for all the logistics, administrative, procurement, and technical work for the crowdfunding campaign. We also led our communication strategy.  

Normally, the Accelerator Lab would launch into a cycle that starts with experimenting with the solutions and scaling them up slowly to monitor results. Not exactly, as the team was fully dedicating its time and skills to this initiative, which by itself has different experimentation nodes –alternative financing for the development issue, such as the environment, an experiment with planting, and partnership.

Crowdfunding is not a local or new solution. But within the team and during the discussions with our partners and colleagues , we realized that for Uzbekistan, this is a great moment to start engaging global and local society to be part in resolving social and environmental issues.

Green initiatives,  afforestation, biodiversity, clean air, and waste management are becoming very popular in discussion among government and society. The AccLab team caught that moment to test alternative financing as a new instrument for the biodiversity in Uzbekistan.

Our Flayer

As part of our exercise, we also conducted other tests within the initiative, for example, on Zeba water-gels for better growing of Saxaul trees in salted soil and sand (those results were impressive as results showed 80% of more successful germination than without).

The first concern we needed to address is that people – both in Uzbekistan and around the world – are not not very familiar with the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea. We often hear on the news about Amazon deforestation, shrinking glaciers in Antarctica, but rarely do we hear anything about the most influential environmental disaster of the 20th century – the landlocked Sea's disappearance.  Very few people it seems are aware that toxic dust from the Aral Sea basin is spreading thousands of miles away and is even detected in the forests of Scandinavia, in the Middle East, and even in Antarctica.

Even in Uzbekistan, people are not fully aware of what is going on.  We discovered this as we traveled and talked to people around the country. We discovered that a large percentage of the population, especially the younger generation, are not aware of the devastating impact the region is having on the environment, biodiversity, public health, economy, and education. 

Discussions with the Alternative Finance Lab of the UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and CIS (our strong supporters) made us realize the importance of establishing a strong and effective awareness-raising campaign, with a communication plan based on the Crowdfunding camping timeline.

As we launched the #GreenAralSea initiative in March 2020, just right before the nationwide lockdown.  We, as a team, began by reaching out to our personal networks (relatives, friends, colleagues, partners) through our own social media accounts.  This helpeda lot in spreading the word about the initiative. We also created a homepage for the #GreenAralSea, and reached out to the communication unit at UNDP Uzbekistan for support.  They helped to raise awareness through the official UNDP social media accounts – primarily through Twitter and Facebook. In cooperation, we reached out to Uzbek bloggers, celebrities, and newspapers.

Webster University in Tashkent joined our team and supported us by creating a probono video with messages from local celebrities and bloggers. We also produced another video based on the true story of a fisherman in Muynak, whose job, dreams and hopes for the future left together with the sea. During his life experience, the fisherman realizes that the water will be gone forever. Still, local people found a unique solution that can help future generations – native dry resistant tree – Saxaul, which will help stop the spread of toxic salts and the desertification process.

Next, we set up the campaign's Facebook and Instagram pages.  The latter was particularly effective in outreach as most young people in Uzbekistan today are on Instagram.  It was encouraging to see how quickly people engaged with us on social media, and how active and caring young people in Uzbekistan are. AccLab continues to receive many direct messages from students proposing to be our volunteers, ambassadors of our initiative, and other ways to help. It is crucial, as we learned, to be always in contact with young supporters through social media.

Through social media we can bring youth into the conversations on gender equality, violence among children, environmental challenges, education, innovation, and what is the most important – looking for the new digital solutions and designs.

While we were quite active on social media, we also paid attention to traditional media, through getting newspapers to run stories and by doing interviews on local radio stations. The first step in this regard involved pre-launch talks in February/March where we provided information on the new initiative, date of the launch, web platform, crowdfunding system, and importance of participation around the country.

Photo of Muzaffar and Farida (Radio talk)

Constant updates through our social media and interaction with our supporters and followers attracted a global audience to our initiative. We have been contacted by several independent photographers, bloggers worldwide for the interviews about our initiative, and the Aral Sea region people. That gave us an excellent opportunity to spread the word about crowdfunding #GreenAralSea and talk about UNDP Uzbekistan's tremendous and leading work in the region. For example, after the talk with AccLab and our Comms, French photographer Alexis Macon , decided to visit the area to capture images of work we, as UNDP, do in Karakalpakstan. 

We received many responses and requests for interviews, podcasts on the Aral Sea tragedy, our crowdfunding campaign from abroad (and again from the young generation, their interest in making the environment and our planet a safer and cleaner place). One of our most generous supporters, #AralSeaProductions, found us through the Facebook page and recorded with our podcasts for Spotify and Apple.

Through our international payment UNDP platform (that we refreshed and gave another life with the Global UNDP team), we can observe supportiveness from different parts of the world. Their encouraging messages, trust, and support make us go further; be proud of the work we have started.

Today we have followers and Green Champions on our social media pages that help us not only with financial support but, most importantly, in raising awareness on the challenges in the Aral Sea Region around the world. Many of them are young and talented students from Tashkent schools.

Another great supporter is Tashkent International School. Before the pandemic, the AccLab team met with the students to discuss the #GreenAralSea Initiative and other social, environmental challenges in the Karakalpakstan region. TIS helps us to raise awareness on the initiative through their vast international network.

Screenshot Photo of TIS and Lab zoom meeting

Our Communication strategy also contained post-launch activities and plans that included school children's involvement, activities with the broad public and celebrities in the Aral Sea region, and fundraising events. We had to review and reorganize our plans due to the lockdown, but we did not give up. Through the social media accounts, we announced the #GreenAralSea drawing competition for children. Our youngest green champions received T-shirts and cups with #GreenAralSea logos. Adults also could receive our logo T-shirt by planting seven or more trees through our website or other payment options.  

Photo of children who won the competition

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified we were able to adapt our #GreenAralSea communication campaign to support coronavirus countermeasures.  We shifted away from fundraising and instead used the platform to increase awareness to be safe, wear masks, and help each other during these difficult times.

Now, as 2021 begins, we are transferring our campaign to the UNDP Uzbekistan project in the Aral Sea Region. It will continue this unique journey to transform the Aral Sea into a green blanket to make our planet better and safer for the next generations.

Summary of Insights we have got during the crowdfunding communication campaign:

¨     Reach out to all your Network – professional/personal;

¨     Spread the word & share your flyers and other visuals among UNDP CO colleagues. Ask them to share among their networks;

¨      Actively involve your partners from private sector – as they helped you to set up the campaign, they would be more than happy to share collaborative work on solving social/environmental issues;

¨     Always have extra copy of your visual materials (in our case it was flyer in three languages: Uzbek/Russian/English), as you can meet the right person anywhere and anytime;

¨     Involve academia – international and local universities are open to talk about UN work, SDGs and to be part of such important initiative;

¨     Be always open to new ideas, crowdsourcing and making changes along the way, but do not let other opinions to discourage you from the main goal;

¨     Be bold, be creative & remember that being perfect – it’s boring. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – learn from them! 

Please bookmark this page and come back for more updates on this initiative.   If you care about the environment and our planet's future, you can support us by visiting today and contributing to a greener Earth tomorrow.

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