Reclaiming the sands of a dead sea

There were once over 1,100 islands scattered across the extensive waters of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Decades of agricultural misuse created an environmental catastrophe.

Sand dunes near Karateren, Kazakhstan. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

“Aral was formerly a harbour and fishing port on the banks of the Aral Sea, supplying fish to most of the neighbouring countries,” recalls Zhandos Moldagulov, who moved to Kyzlorda in the Aral Sea district with his family in 1967. “My parents were proud to live in this place, with its abundant water, promising jobs, prosperous neighbourhoods and fertile land.”

Before Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, intensive, industrial-scale agricultural production was widespread in the south. The main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea were diverted for massive irrigation of vast cotton and wheat fields by the Soviet Republic, and the Aral Sea started retreating — with devastating economic, social, and environmental consequences.

Now, the landscapes of southern Kazakhstan are dominated by seemingly endless expanses of rolling steppes, scrubby drylands, and deserts. Here, rain is scarce, soil is compacted and polluted with toxic residues, and ‘solonchak’ (salinized) lands have formed.

A farmer stands atop a sand dune near his home in the village of Aralkum, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

Over the last few decades, the population shrank by 85 percent, as people drifted away to seek a better life elsewhere. The remaining residents are facing serious health problems caused by airborne particles of toxic chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and highly salted sand that have been exposed to the winds by the retreating waters. The economies of local communities have suffered.

Bringing life back to the soil

With the fishing industry lost, and other livelihood opportunities limited, agriculture became the main source of income and employment for many in the Aral region. But, limited availability of water, high climate variability, and unsustainable land use practices degraded the fragile soils. In addition, productive land was slowly losing to the relentless assault of the shifting sands, pollution and dust blowing in from the drying Aral Sea bed.

Shells are seen on the parched seabed of the Aral Sea near Karateren, Kazakhstan. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

Zhandos’s father had 142 hectares of land on which he grew fruit and vegetables, however, the land was losing its productivity and a new way of growing was needed.

“It is my life’s dream to be a worthy son to my father, to keep the farm I inherited from him productive, the trees alive and to leave a healthy farm to my son,” he emphasizes.

The Kyzylorda Extension Centre was offering hands-on courses on farming sustainably: running a farm business, managing seed banks, conserving soil and water, rehabilitating degraded or abandoned land and growing crops suitable to the conditions.

By applying what he learned, Zhandos rehabilitated 101 hectares of his land. He improved soil drainage by planting salt-tolerant trees and protected the upper layers of soil from wind erosion and incursion by moving sand with a shelterbelt of White Poplar trees.

His sustainability efforts yielded higher returns and changes with far-reaching impact.

His sons no longer have to go elsewhere to work as taxi drivers or to do small jobs. They help on the farm, and have both launched new businesses –as a cattle breeder and beekeeper. All their fresh fruit and vegetables now come from their own land, saving US$1,800 a year in food costs.

But the impact is not just personal. Zhandos now employs eight permanent and 27 seasonal workers, which not only provides jobs, but also brings hope to this suffering region.

Video: Thompson Reuters Foundation

Pushing back the moving sands

In Bakhyt Kirbasov’s tiny farming village of Aralkum, shifting sand dunes have replaced the once blossoming wild flowers. Aralkum sits 50 km northeast of the dried Aral Sea bed. Ploughs push the sands back every few months, but it’s not enough to protect the village. The encroaching sands have forced about a hundred families to move their homes in the last decade.

Strong winds create dust storms that carry salt and pesticides long distances, causing health problems like stunted growth and respiratory diseases.

“When the wind blows, people get inside their homes and close all doors,” says Kirbasov.

Kirbasov, a respected village elder, has been fighting to contain the desert for years. Tired of his house being covered by the sands, and not willing to move, he planted drought-resistant saxaul trees around his house. The trees easily rooted, forming a barrier to keep the sands away.

Local authorities saw his success and reached out to UNDP to extend the approach to the whole village. UNDP’s pilot project trained the villagers and provided resources, and eventually the saxaul and other shrubs were planted to form a 400-meter protective barrier on Aralkum’s outskirts.

The green fence has helped hold the sand back, and in 2015 UNDP researched and inventoried saxaul plantings in the bed of the former Aral Sea. Based on the recommendations, the government is now planting in the seabed itself to prevent sandstorms from starting.

The growing demand for these trees and shrubs means someone has to grow them.

Bektemir Zhusupov manages the nursery where the seedlings are grown near the village of Akbay, about 40 km south of Aralkum.

UNDP helped restore the forest nursery with sustainable infrastructure, reconstructing its main main water canal and supplying water pumps, a drip irrigation system and solar-wind powered generators for electricity. Soil research determined the best tree and shrub species. All this has increased the survivability of seedlings from 30 to 100 percent and make it possible to green 2,500 hectares.

“We want to make the bottom of the sea green,” says Bektemir.

Part of this story was adapted from a Thompson Reuters foundation piece, in partnership with UNDP.

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