Combating land degradation in Central Asia

Date: 01.05.2014.

A nursery of black saxaul (Haloxylon aphyllum) in Kyzylorda Region of Kazakhstan. The plantlets are used for reforestation of the dry Aral seabed and desert rangelands. Photo by Prof Z. Novitskiy.

The degradation of land, a blanket term for all natural resources contributing to agricultural production, is a serious socioeconomic and environmental problem in Central Asia. It adversely affects, among other things, food production and biodiversity. During its Soviet days, the region saw this process accelerate. Decades of poorly managed irrigated agriculture has done considerable damage to vast areas of land. The shrinking Aral Sea is now the epitome of man-made environmental disaster. Once independent, the Central Asian countries faced a plethora of socioeconomic and environmental issues. In the early 1990s, all ratified the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and developed national action plans to tackle the challenge. Yet some twenty years on, they still find it hard to break free from agricultural practices of the past. Irrigated lands in the region expanded from 4.5m ha in the 1960s to 7.9m ha in the early 2000s, accounting for more than 75 per cent of the cultivated areas in most countries. Recent estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that over 13 per cent of the region's territory was degraded between 1981 and 2003 (measured as a loss of net primary productivity adjusted for changes in climate), affecting 6 per cent of the population. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) reckons that agricultural yields have fallen by 20-30 per cent across the region since independence due to land degradation, causing annual production losses worth as much as 2bn USD.

Scientists point out a few major types of land degradation in the region. Water and wind erosion, often linked to poor agricultural practices, plays a big role. In Uzbekistan, some 800,000 ha of the irrigated croplands are estimated to be subject to serious soil erosion. And more than 50 per cent of the farmlands in Uzbekistan are estimated to suffer from serious wind erosion. In Turkmenistan, water erosion is a serious problem on slopes, covering an area of about 690,000 ha. In Kyrgyzstan, almost 60 per cent of the arable land is considered to be subject to serious soil erosion by water and wind. Soil erosion is also a major concern in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, especially on slopes. These factors contribute to soil fertility decline. Soil fertility is low and declining in many irrigated areas of Central Asia. Another problem is waterlogging, which is closely linked with salinization. Both are caused by inappropriate irrigation. Recent estimates suggest that between 40 and 60 per cent of the irrigated croplands in Central Asia are salt-affected and/or waterlogged. This consequently leads to decreased plant growth and yields. Cotton losses due to salinization are thought to stand at 100,000 tons per year. Livestock production is also at risk. Overgrazing puts considerable pressure on rangelands, the predominant landscape in Central Asia. Due to increased demand for food and feed, many rangeland areas in the region are poorly managed. For example, 24m ha of rangelands, or 13.2 per cent of the total, are believed to be degraded to varying degrees in Kazakhstan. And this figure exceeds 90 per cent of the total, or 3.7m ha, in Tajikistan.

The countries appreciate the need for regional cooperation in coordinating, above all, water use. Among their first joint moves was the establishment in the early 1990s of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), an interstate body. And later the Interstate Coordination Water Commission (ICWC) was formed under the IFAS. But to expand and promote multi-sector cooperation in addressing environmental problems in Central Asia at the local, national and regional levels, all Central Asian countries, as well as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Commission (EC), founded in 1998 the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC), currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, efforts were unsystematic and most countries lacked either funds or research potential, and often both. Difficulties in implementing action plans and fulfilling international obligations under UNCCD led to the formation of another regional initiative. The Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management (CACILM) was launched in 2006 as a multi-year program between the Central Asian countries and international donor organizations to combat land degradation and improve rural livelihoods in the region. One of the main achievements of the first phase, which ended in 2010, is a functional partnership among international, regional and national organizations. Moreover, ADB published the Atlas of Natural Resources of Central Asia in 2010, which is available at The results of research conducted during the first phase were documented and published by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and comprehensive studies of the forestry sector in Tajikistan and pasture management in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan were published by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).

In recent years, however, international research-for-development organizations in the region have also joined forces. For example, a new CGIAR research program called the Dryland Systems was launched in 2013. The program is now well under way in three transboundary Action Sites, namely the Aral Sea region, the Fergana Valley and the Rasht Valley. Central Asian scientists and their counterparts from international research-for-development organizations fight land degradation on several fronts. They are testing and promoting new technologies and approaches, and are introducing improved varieties.

First, conservation agriculture, a concept for resource-saving crop production, is gaining momentum in several countries. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are ahead. For instance, as a result of government support in Kazakhstan, the areas under conservation agriculture practices are reported to have increased from virtually zero ha in 2000 to 1.6m ha in 2011. But other countries are also keen to move from tillage-based systems to conservation agriculture. Unfortunately, conservation agriculture technologies are being introduced slowly in the irrigated croplands. This is blamed on lack of planting machines and of farmers' knowledge of no-till technologies. Yet across the Central Asian region, data indicate that minimum tillage can lead to fuel savings of around 50-75 per cent as compared to conventional tillage, and net benefits of around 24 USD per ha. So efforts were made to promote this resource-saving approach in irrigated areas by ICARDA and its national partners in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan under a FAO-funded project. As a result, irrigated areas under conservation agriculture reached 1,800 ha in Azerbaijan, 1,100 ha in Kazakhstan and 2,050 ha in Uzbekistan in 2013. And a three-year project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) aims to promote conservation agriculture technologies in Tajikistan.

Second, researchers suggest that farmers in the region grow new varieties of traditional crops and alternative crops to ensure sustainable agricultural production. New crops could help to tackle soil degradation and salinization. For instance, researchers from AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center, ICARDA and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) have been working on new varieties of legumes like vegetable soybean and mung bean, which increase soil fertility and are good for crop rotation, as well as the Jerusalem artichoke, in Uzbekistan. What is more, these varieties help to reduce soil salinity and improve soil structure. The results of a number of studies show that non-traditional crops like sorghum and pearl millet can help to rehabilitate abandoned salt-affected lands and rangelands in the region. And certain trees and shrubs can be used as biological pumps to lower elevated groundwater levels in waterlogged areas. In Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, ICBA, together with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and local partners, has demonstrated that sorghum and pearl millet can be grown as a second crop after wheat, as well as in rotation with rice. Trials have identified promising dual-purpose varieties that produce grain for food and feed for poultry and livestock. For example, a multi-year collaborative study has recently resulted in the official release of a new high-yielding, early-maturing and stress-tolerant variety of pearl millet called 'Hashaki 1' in Uzbekistan. It yields up to 30 per cent more compared with local proso millet. In 2013 ICBA scientists started studying ways of cultivating quinoa in marginal lands in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. According to initial results, this crop already shows great promise as a grain and fodder crop for salt-affected arid areas.

Third, better water management is needed. Experts put much of the blame for poor soil and water quality on intensive irrigation. Traditional methods like heavy leaching and intensive drainage are costly and unsustainable. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has worked with international and national partners to address the problem. To this end, two multi-year Swiss-funded regional water projects were successfully completed in 2013. IWMI and the Scientific Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (SIC-ICWC) had implemented the Integrated Water Resources Management project in the Fergana Valley (IWRM-Fergana Valley) and the Water Productivity Improvement at Plot Level project (WPI-PL). The projects pioneered a framework for institutionalizing and scaling up bottom-up cooperation mechanisms on small transboundary tributaries shared between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. IWMI is also promoting agricultural use of groundwater, a largely untapped resource in the region. It can be particularly useful for farming rural populations that do not have access to sufficient water resources for irrigation. There is evidence suggesting availability of groundwater in large parts of Central Asia. In particular Uzbekistan's renewable groundwater resources are estimated to be at 18.5 cu km and extraction is at 5.43 cu km, of which 42 per cent for household use, 25 per cent for agriculture, and the rest for other uses. Under a three-year project on lift irrigation, a method of pumping water to the fields, IWMI scientists have also been working in Uzbekistan since 2012 to increase water and energy efficiency in lift irrigation areas. Building on similar work done in northern Tajikistan, the project focuses on water transportation from the River Amu Darya to the Karshi Steppe, a region in southern Uzbekistan.

Fourth, scientists breed crops better adapted to changing environmental conditions. For example, in Turkmenistan, ICARDA researchers and local scientists identified recently two new lines of winter wheat resistant to salinity and frost, two main abiotic stresses to winter wheat production in many parts of Central Asia. And one of these lines is being prepared for submission to the State Variety Testing Commission of Turkmenistan. Based on tens of thousands samples of genetic material, or accessions introduced into the region, 18 winter wheat varieties alone were released for cultivation in the countries. Under a three-year German-funded project since 2012, IWMI and CIP, an international potato research organization, have been helping farmers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by providing improved potato varieties and training them in best cultivation and irrigation practices.

These achievements are certainly grounds for optimism. Yet improved varieties and technologies are successful only if they are used by farmers. Although scientists have accumulated extensive knowledge, it has little value if it is not used. Experts point out that widespread adoption is slow in the region due to a number of reasons, including lack of access to such knowledge and stimulating policies. So a recent three-year IFAD-funded project aims to build a platform to consolidate existing knowledge and make sure farmers and policymakers can access and use it. The project is coordinated by ICARDA and seeks to contribute to the second phase of the CACILM initiative. There is a considerable body of documented knowledge available through various platforms such as the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), which is available at But they lack effective means of reaching policymakers, farmers and other land users. So the project addresses this issue. Its first outcomes were reviewed and work plans for the second year discussed at the recent Annual Project and Steering Committee meetings held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, from 28 April to 1 May 2014 ( But a real change in improving land management depends on better policies conducive to large-scale adoption, as well as capacity building. Farmers need more incentives and better access to knowledge and technologies. And international research-for-development and donor organizations try to foster dialogue between policymakers and other stakeholders at national and regional levels to make this happen through various events. To this end, the ministerial meeting planned in Avaza, Turkmenistan, in August 2014 will be a good opportunity for policymakers to prove their commitment. Moreover, the 2nd International Conference on Arid Land Studies (ICAL 2) titled "Innovations for sustainability and food security in arid and semiarid lands" will also serve as a platform for exchange of ideas between scientists and policymakers. It will be held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 9-13 September 2014 (more information is available at Scientists will have the opportunity to present their research to policymakers and farmers and participate in discussions on how to overcome constraints and identify viable policy options. These events should give a new boost to joint efforts to combat land degradation. But the main hope is that commitment will translate into better policies and actions, and eventually better livelihoods for rural populations.

See also