Afforestation of the dried bottom of the Aral Sea

Piloting a closed root system

Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been facing rapid depletion, shrinking to 10% of its original size and splitting into four lakes. Such major water decline led to the formation of a large Aralkum Desert, with its salinized soil becoming the main source of dust and salt storms in Central Asian States (CAS) and beyond. Occupying approximately 6 million ha, out of which 2.8 million hectares are located in Kazakhstan (Kyzylorda Region) and 3.2 million hectares in Uzbekistan (Republic of Karakalpak-stan), the desert generates over 100 million tons of dust and toxic salt annually.

The new desert adversely affects the social-economic activities, as well as causes environmental damages such as desertification, land degradation, sand and salt storms, and droughts in the CAS. Additionally, the dust formed in the Desert is carried by the strong east-west airstream across the Aral Sea Basin, accelerating glacial melt in upstream countries.


In line with the EU Green Deal, we promote the Nexus approach to ensure efficient use of such vital resources as water, energy and food. We are fully committed to support the green transition through viable investment projects to ensure long-term resilience, peace and prosperity of the region.

— Dr Johannes Baur, Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan

Challenges to Aralkum Desert’s afforestation

CAS have acknowledged the low possibility of recovering the Aral Sea and directed their efforts on mitigation measures. To this end, afforestation of the dried bottom is considered one of the most viable ways to halt desertification and reduce exposed toxic soils and pollutants. Kazakhstan has been putting efforts on afforestation of the Aralkum Desert and has already reached 200,000 ha of afforested area.

In this regard, Saxaul roots are capable of fixing around 4 tons of sand, thereby contending heavy sand and dust storms and accelerating Aral Seabed afforestation. However, the afforestation is progressing slowly due to the low adaptability of saxaul species to arid climate, which demonstrate a survival rate below 40% during their first year of life. Climate change impacts such as the drop in the discharge of the Syrdarya and Amudarya Rivers, the augmenting water mineralization and soil salinity within the dried seabed area, and the anomalous air temperature increase, have also prevented accelerated greening.

Benefits of the closed root method

Saxaul is an extremely valuable resource for the development of desert ecosystems and economic activities of local communities. The cultivation of tree seedlings using a closed root system is an innovative method to speed up the afforestation and increase the survival rate of saxaul species up to 2-3 times compared to conventional planting techniques. The methodology is proving its effectiveness in providing the necessary resources and higher survival rate of saxaul that will contribute to ecosystem restoration of the dried bottom of the Aral Sea.

The objective of the two saxaul greenhouses along with the shadehouse is to implement the closed root system method of growing saxaul seedlings and increase the survival rate up to 70%. The complex has potential to become a knowledge-hub on new technologies and approaches for afforestation of the complex landscape of Aralkum desert, benefiting the entire Central Asian Region through exchange and replication of knowledge and technical solutions.


Scientific observations show that this method leads to increased adaptability, increased survival rate [up to 90%], earlier maturity of plants and the possibility of harvesting seeds 2-3 years earlier.

— Mr Bolat Bekniyaz, Director of the Executive Board of International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus

The Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus approach focuses on negotiating trade-offs, inspiring compromises and uncovering synergies to ensure water, energy and food security in the long run. It further promotes policy coherence and cooperation between all three sectors at the regional, local, and global level, and assesses alternative resource management, technology, and governance options to promote efficiency in the use of natural resources.

The Central-Asia Nexus Dialogue project, ‘Fostering Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus Dialogue and Multi-Sector Investment’ is implemented by the Regional Environmental Center for Central Asia (CAREC). It is part of the global Nexus Regional Dialogues programme, co-funded by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

By promoting the afforestation of the Aral Sea’s dried bottom, the demo project proposes technical solutions to address the adverse consequences of the desertification and helps to secure the access of water, energy and land, as well as to respond to labour demands, in the Central Asian Region.

About the national demonstration project

Despite the proved positive impacts, the growing of black saxaul seedlings in a closed root system has not been previously approved in Central Asia. Thus, the demo project in Kazakhstan is an innovative approach to combat the deforestation. It is comprised by the following tasks:  

  • Construction of 2 greenhouses and 1 shade-house with the total area of 140 m2, along with the plantation of 2,000 black saxaul seeds using the closed root system method; 
  • Replantation of seedling to the dried bottom of the Aral Sea in 1 year; 
  • Estimations on the volume of the water and electricity resources needed for growing seeds of saxaul in a closed root system; 
  • Monitoring of the growth and survival rate of saxaul seedlings replanted on the dried bottom of the Aral Sea comparing to other methods.

With that, the project supports the approval of the black saxaul cultivation method with closed root system by showcasing the most effective way for the Aral Sea bottom forestation.


The demonstration projects have addressed acute and urgent issues for the region, such as the reservoirs’ growing sedimentation, afforestation of the dried bottom of the Aral Sea, and the low energy efficiency of pumping stations which supply water for irrigation of agricultural crops.

— Mr Serik Bekmagambetov, Authorised Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the Executive Committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS)

“We are delighted to support Kazakhstan’s efforts to improve the North Aral ecosystem through the Nexus project in line with our Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.”

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The planted saxaul seedlings in the closed root system demonstrated the best survival rate compared to other methods (over 50%), being able to wake up after some time and begin to grow from the root. The new methodology has been proving its effectiveness across all Nexus priorities, providing the necessary resources and higher survival rate of saxaul, thereby contributing to ecosystem restoration of the dried bottom of the Aral Sea.

Based on the positive results, a few national saxaul nurseries are considering to apply the closed root system at the massive scale. After the project completion, the greenhouses will remain operational and will continue to be used for the rehabilitation of the Aral Sea ecosystem, improving the living conditions, health and economic situation of the local communities.

More Information

  • The Nexus Regional Dialogues Programme

    Find more information about the Nexus Regional Dialogues Programme and its activities in other regions here.

  • The Nexus Regional Dialogue in the Central Asian Region

    Find more information about recent news articles, resources and activities of the Nexus Regional Dialogue in Central Asia here.

  • WEF Nexus Training Material

    The WEF Nexus training material shall contribute to an increased application of the WEF Nexus approach in planning, policymaking and implementation. Find more information here.


    Find more background information on the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC) here.

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