Our personal global issue
Farida faced with the tragedy of Aral Sea in the middle school, when her mom got her a book “100 Unbelievable Facts Around the World”. She could not believe that an environmental disaster - disappearance of an ancient landlocked sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, was happening in her own country, in real time. Since that day Aral was always in her heart and mind. She graduated from high school, then university by witnessing many discussions on the problem of Aral but never saw real actions and solutions that could bring back the pearl once we all had.
Adham first heard about the Aral Sea problem being at his first year of elementary school. He remembers TV reports from Muynak (once the main fish port of Aral Sea) where people were discussing the first steps of sea’s shrinking process and ways of bringing water back to Aral. Now looking back, Adham understands that people from that time could not fully realize what kind of consequences the next generation would be facing in the future. For him it is hard to believe that today after more than three decades Aral Sea is hundreds of kilometers away from Muynak - all fish factories are now closed and along with the ships which once roamed the sea remain derelict symbols of the tragedy.
Muzaffar witnessed the conditions of the people living in the region beyond the alarming newspaper articles and scientific reports when he visited the region regularly in his earlier career. There he experienced firsthand the scale of the ever-increasing real toll of the tragedy – the suffering and deprivation of the people living there. Getting to know the people who are affected by the disaster personally and experiencing the issue apart from the comfort of touristic trips have given him the feeling of personal attachment.
Coming from a generation who witnessed the tragedy evolving as we grew up, each of us in Uzbekistan Accelerator Lab carry our own stories as nemesis of our professional conscience. As a team set to engage in tackling complex social and environmental challenges can we ignore the issue?
A complex challenge: conventional vs new approaches
The seabed is now ships’ graveyard and source of toxic salts spread by windstorms across the region and even more distant locations. The people living in the area are the main victims though. The severe health implications are accompanied by loss of livelihoods, income sources, degradation of soil, unemployment and plethora of other social problems.
To mitigate the consequences of the catastrophe and bring relief to the region dozens of projects have been implemented in the region. However, these efforts have been fragmented and limited in delivering large scale and lasting results.
UN Multi Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea paved a way for more coordination and new approaches such as mobilizing community volunteers, conducting in-depth social and economic surveys and mapping needs in the region to identify root causes of problems and to develop targeted measures. However, the scope and complexity of the issue require to go even further with more strategic vision and innovative solutions.
An attempt by the Government of Uzbekistan in this regard was made in 2018 by proposing to turn the region into a zone of environmental innovations and technologies and creating International Innovation Center for the Aral Sea Basin.
At UNDP it is also well understood that we need a “moon-shot” initiative which would catalyst more large scale and lasting solutions for the region. Scoping mission of high-level experts which visited Uzbekistan in September 2019 also noted a need for enhanced coordination and focus on addressing root causes of the issues.
Accelerator Lab - a catalyst for change
The launch of the Accelerator Lab in Uzbekistan comes just at the right time to support aspirations for wider application of environmental innovations and technologies in the region. We see a perfect opportunity here to link the potential of our Lab with the exiting UNDP expertise in the region. We aim to enhance the portfolio of current innovative initiatives in the region by identification, refining and testing new ideas.
A guiding rule for our team is engaging the people living in the region into the process by establishing and deepening personal bonds to better understand local needs and to identify the grassroot solutions which are already practiced by the people for many years.
In our journey we have already set off for our first learning iteration. We intend to test a crowdfunding platform for planting suitable trees and creating forests in the region. The platform will also allow online monitoring of each planted tree which will be tagged electronically. Besides environmental benefits such as preventing spread of toxic sands and increasing biodiversity, this might help to mobilize international and local community against the issue, increase awareness, support local employment and boost ecological tourism in the region. We see an opportunity for growing the idea in the region and beyond as we will learn more from our first experiment. We are inspired by the example of people in Uzbekistan who restored more than 50 hectares of desert area into a forest as a grassroot enterprise.
Our mission has just started but we believe that it is possible to make a difference by creating and sharing new knowledge and by introducing new strategies and approaches. We feel ourselves as an excellent fit in the environment charged with ambition to bring innovative solutions for the good of the people.
We invite government counterparts, communities, civil society, private sector and individual actors to join our mission to tackling the most pressing challenges in Uzbekistan.
Farida Ahmatiy is Head of Solutions Mapping at UNDP Uzbekistan Accelerator Lab. You can follow her on Twitter.
Adham Kuchkarov is Head of Experimentation at UNDP Uzbekistan Accelerator Lab. You can follow him on Twitter.
Muzaffar Tilavov is Head of Exploration at UNDP Uzbekistan Accelerator Lab. You can follow him on Twitter.