Photos: UNDP Uzbekistan

On December 16, 2020, an online round table dedicated to the results of two expeditions of the Scientific Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Management of Central Asia (SIC ICWC) on the drained bottom of the Aral Sea took place. It was organized within the Joint Programme financed by the UN Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund (MPHSTF) for the Aral Sea region in Uzbekistan in 2019-2020.

-          UNDP remains committed to working with national and regional governments to meet the needs of people living in the Aral Sea region by promoting new approaches to turn an ecologically suffering region into a region of innovative solutions, '' stressed Doina Munteanu, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in the Republic of Uzbekistan in her welcoming speech.

Desiccation of the Aral Sea brought to appearance of the Aralkum salt desert on the site of a drained bottom with an area of about 5 million hectares, 2.7 million hectares of which are located in Uzbekistan. This territory with an unstable ecological system poses a threat to both the environment and the health of the local population. Mitigating the negative consequences of the drying up of the Aral Sea, improving the conditions and quality of life for the local population are defined as the priority areas of the State Programme for the Development of the Aral Sea Region for 2017-2021. Meanwhile it is necessary to have a complete understanding of the current state of the ecological disaster zone, the changes taking place there in order to create a basis for the implementation of the Programme. For this purpose, monitoring of the drained bottom was initiated, where, in addition to natural processes, intense anthropogenic pressure takes place. Representatives of the International Innovation Center for the Aral Sea Basin under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, as well as a number of specialists in the field of ecology, soil science, hydrogeology, dendrology, botany and GIS were involved in the both SIC ICWC expeditions - in Fall of 2019 and in Spring of 2020. The total coverage of the study area was 1.2 million hectares, from Chink to the Akpetka Island system, and from the water's edge to the historical sea level.

Monitoring and analysis of the dried seabed soil allowed identification of unstable ecological zones and mapping of risk areas. The dynamics of the soil cover formation on the parent rocks of drying was also investigated, an assessment and classification of the soil was carried out, and a soil map was formed. Other key results of the expeditions include:

- the hydrogeological situation and the state of the observation network revealed the need for supplements;

- a geobotanical description of vegetation was carried out, a herbarium of plants was collected, regularities of the formation and conservation of vegetation cover were established;

- scientific and field studies of the state of forest stands were carried out, which made it possible to assess the dynamics of afforestation.

From 2005 to 2011, the SIC ICWC, together with representatives of international organizations, carried out complex expeditions, including soil, hydrogeological and geobotanical studies, using satellite imagery data.

The current expeditions helped to determine methods for retrospective analysis of satellite images of that period, to prepare thematic territorial GIS maps, to compare changes in landscape classes and risk zones over the past 10 years. Simultaneous remote observations and GIS maps based on them as well as on the collected data, developed using GPS, made it possible to assess not only the landscape changes, but also to develop approaches for more accurate space monitoring of the state of forest cover in the future.

 

As it was noted during the round table, the obtained data provide scientists with a unique opportunity to study the processes of formation of natural landscapes on a drained bottom. Completion of the study covering the remaining 1.5 million hectares will make it possible to summarize the data of previous monitoring and create a geoinformation system of the dried seabed, which in its turn will serve as a reliable basis for all subsequent work on the introduction of environmental innovations in this area. Detailed information and conclusions on expeditions are reflected in the publication “Monitoring of the Drained Sea Bottom 2019 –2020”, which is to be released in 2021.

The study was carried out within the framework of the joint UNDP-UNESCO project "Addressing the urgent human insecurities in the Aral Sea region through promoting sustainable rural development", funded by the MPHSTF for the Aral Sea region in Uzbekistan. As a result of the expeditions, as part of the project, it is envisioned to strengthen the institutional base and enhance technical skills of specialists in the field of afforestation, in particular, the branches of the Forestry Administration and pasture cooperatives in Takhtakupir district of Karakalpakstan. These measures are aimed at improving the processes of sand stabilization, reducing the spread of salt and dust to the border areas. In the longer term, afforestation activities are expected to improve the ecological balance in the region and thus lead to positive health impacts for the local population, create favorable microclimatic and atmospheric conditions, reduce soil degradation and improve conditions for free movement of animals.

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