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Cycle 9 (2020 Deadline)

The effects of excessive water use and agricultural intensification on Aral Sea shrinkage: socioeconomic-environmental systems (SES) dynamics within the Syr Darya River Basin

PI: Maira Kussainova (, Kazakh National Agrarian University
U.S. Partners: Ranjeet John, University of South Dakota, and Jiquan Chen, Michigan State University
Project Dates: April 2021 - March 2023

Project Overview:
Project Website

One of the most dramatic changes in the Earth’s surface over the past six decades has been the shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. This project focuses on the causes of reduced stream flows through analysis of land cover trends, agricultural development, water withdrawals, irrigation intensity trends, population density, economic development, and policy shifts. Concepts, principles and methods from socioeconomic-environmental systems (SES) will be applied for three districts along the Syr River, the largest tributary for water supply to the shrinking Aral Sea. The long-term goal is to build a comprehensive database and knowledge to understand physical and socioeconomic changes, as well as their forcing and consequences on the ecosystems and societies within the Syr Darya River basin (SDRB). Specific project objectives are as follows: (1) to construct a comprehensive database of climate, stream flows, agricultural lands, time series of land cover at 5-year intervals since 1973, economic measures, social indicators, and major policies for three districts along the Syr Darya River; (2) to explore the interdependent changes of food, energy, and water fluxes for the three districts with high-resolution data for mechanistic understanding of coupled changes between climate and land use; (3) to identify critical drivers (including policy shifts) on stream flows and evapotranspiration loss for the sustainable future of food, water, and energy; and (4) to construct an open-access webpage to share all the data and research findings with the public. The research team will integrate socioeconomic and biophysical changes by infusing databases from multiple sources, including satellite images, government statistics, past ground measurements of vegetation, soil, stream and climate, the literature, and their own field measurements. They will focus on three districts (Aralskiy, Syrdariya, and Zhanakorganskiy) that are located in the upper, middle, and lower sections of the river. Installations of three automatic weather stations and extensive surveys of the landscapes in Kyzylorda will fill some major data gaps.

Built on rich literature and multiple sources of data, this project will be the first attempt in the region to integrate socioeconomic and ecological changes toward a holistic understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and land uses. This project will be the first to produce land covers for the three districts at five-year intervals for the past five decades. When integrated with other long-term climate, hydrology, and physical changes, the researchers will be able to quantify the changes of SES functions, providing scientific evidence for revising local management plans and policies, as well as for transboundary policy developments for partner countries within the Aral Sea basin. The project is built upon the team’s past research in the Aral region, including an ongoing project on the food-water-energy nexus of Kazakhstan (working with NASA and USDA/ARS) and curriculum development for more than five universities in Kazakhstan (in conjunction with the American Council). The researchers will collaborate directly with the management teams of the Akimat in each district/city, making the recommendations directly to the managers and policy makers. They will share data openly with the international community, setting a model template for other teams who do not have such a sharing protocol. In addition to providing direct support for a graduate student, the project will enhance data and lessons to be used in several undergraduate and graduate courses, summer schools at local universities, and workshops with local policy makers.

Summary of Recent Activities

During the last quarter of 2022, the project team continued to develop the program and share results with regional stakeholders. The team organized a series of training seminars and webinars, allowing researchers to master all the necessary skills to conduct research and implement projects in the field of environmental conservation and agriculture. They also met with farmers and heads of peasant farms who focus on crop production and animal husbandry, as well as local agricultural departments and representatives of the higher educational universities in the Kyzylorda Region. Finally, team members participated in a series of international conferences and various training covering most aspects of climate change and environmental research work.

PI Maira also visited her USG-supported partner during this period. As part of this trip to the University of South Dakota, the partners used archival data from libraries, various literature, and data from the statistical bureau of Kazakhstan, to analyze causal and non-causal relationships between the elements of the biophysical matrix and socio-economic variables.

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