Nukus, the capital city of Karakalpakstan, does not feel like the rest of Uzbekistan. It is an oasis in the centre of the desert with artificial palm trees in the city centre with a museum of Russian avant-garde that is just a jewel.
As a young researcher and UN Joint Programme Intern, I recently visited Nukus to conduct research on the possible impact of UNDP’s Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund, which aims to build resilience in the populations affected by the Aral Sea disaster.
Disaster, catastrophe, degradation, regression… Many nouns usually accompany “Aral Sea”, but nothing prepares you for that moment you first arrive at the ship cemetery in Muynak, a few hours from Nukus. Especially in the summer, when, under a striking sun and with over 40 dry degrees outside and rare shade, you find yourself thinking, “if only there was some water here, it would be just perfect.”
Pity is, what you see is just a huge, huge desert with some plants that make you ask how it is possible that they are still alive, considering the total lack of water and the excessive degree of pollution of land and air, that has affected also human beings in the region for decades now.
How would you feel if you were born and lived there?
If it is difficult to picture yourself in Muynak, Uzbekistan, isolated from the rest of the world, I can help you with some examples:
You might be worried as temperatures become more extreme every year because of the climate change triggered by the sea’s regression, especially during the summer.
You might have clean water access, if you’re the lucky half of the population. But you are exposed to sand and salt storms that become more and more frequent, which could have negative implications on your health.
For sure, you know someone that has or passed away because of tuberculosis.
You have 1/5 chance that one of your relatives is abroad, but only for seasonal jobs.
You and your family definitely want to stay in Karakalpakstan, not really wishing to emigrate.
If you’re a woman, your choice to go to university might be frowned upon, which limits the choice of jobs you will have in a few years. There is an 80% chance you will suffer from anemia during your pregnancy.
Your household’s income might be around US$ 200 per month, which would be very good. But there is a far more common chance this would be around $100. And you spend most of it on food and utilities. Luckily, you and/or some relatives of yours grow fruits and vegetables, which helps you out a bit.
The UN Joint Programme and its Human Security Trust Fund operates in the Aral Sea with this context in mind.
In practice, we’re trying to provide people with what they need, but also with what they want. It means training hundreds of people on how to make their agriculture production more sustainable, so that it does not pollute that much and it uses less water and more efficiently. Over 1,500 people have been trained to date on health issues such as tuberculosis, reproductive health, on how to prevent and spot some common diseases. It is big news with a small echo. If someone has an idea for a business, we help them go for it. Training has been provided to professionals working in water purification systems, bakeries, embroideries. They’ve also been supported by the fund to get the equipment they would need for a business. This way, they and their families can start new lives.
My criticism of such small projects – many of the businesses are family-owned or employ only few people – crumbled as soon as I started talking to the beneficiaries. Some of them had a difficult life. Talking to them is pleasant; they seem genuinely happy about the support they have received. They get to do something for themselves, they get to feed their families. Each person I spoke to has plans and dreams for the future, whether it’s expanding their business, or starting a new one.
It is at this moment that I understand the real impact of the fund, and the true meaning of the expression human security. It is not just about providing water access to people, or giving them a sewing machine. It’s so much more than that. Human security is about empowering people, giving them the chance to shape their own futures and making them better every step of the way. This is what the UN Joint Programme is doing in Karakalpakstan, and although there is always room for improvement, it is already a great start.
This is why I am so happy that my rambling critique melted during that short trip to Karakalpakstan, the place where I learned what human security and resilience look (and feel) like.