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An abandoned ship in the Aral Sea, which has almost completely disappeared. Hélène Veilleux, Flickr

For the week of 5–9 April, entrepreneurs from around the world gathered on Zoom to go head-to-head with proposals on how to fix one of the world’s largest environmental disasters. At stake: the fast-disappearing Aral Sea, the livelihoods and public health of millions of people, and a USD 5,000 prize.

Using a format similar to the popular television program ‘Shark Tank,’ the Global Disruptive Tech Challenge 2021 – a virtual competition livestreamed from Almaty, Kazakhstan – saw 24 entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for restoring Central Asia’s Aral Sea to a panel of 20 experts. After three days of pitches, with each day dedicated to a specific theme, the winners were announced on the final day. Proposals based on beekeeping, female empowerment, a ‘geowall’ and a data collection tool received top honors, earning prize money and a chance to be mentored by leading global businesses. Runners-up in the competition were honored with USD 1,000.

“What we are currently doing with this challenge is generating momentum,” Cora van Oosten, content and learning advisor for the Global Landscapes Forum, said during the livestream of the finale. “Through this challenge, we are showing the world that degraded landscapes can be restored, and that innovative, disruptive technology, particularly if employed by young people, is key. The focus on the Aral Sea is spot on, turning the Aral Sea into an example of successful restoration across borders and cultures.”

Ship graveyards can be found sitting in what was once the Aral Sea seabed. Arian Zwegers, Flickr
Ship graveyards can be found sitting in what was once the Aral Sea seabed. Arian Zwegers, Flickr

Why the Aral Sea?

Organized by the World Bank with the support of a cohort of international organizations, aid groups, universities, regional governments and other partners, the Tech Challenge sought new ideas and ways of thinking to help solve the complex challenges involved in reviving the shrinking Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water and named for the many islands once found therein, the Aral Sea has experienced decades of man-made water diversions for agriculture, irrigation and storage. 

Today, the sea has dried out in many places and separated into two large lakes known as the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea. In between the two lakes, patches of water are broken up by long stretches of salty soil on the former seabed that is now home to old ships rusting away and few other signs of life.

“It is heartbreaking to drive for miles and not see any water,” said Lilia Burunciuc, the World Bank’s regional director for the Central Asia region.

The shrinking of the Aral Sea over the last two decades. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr
The shrinking of the Aral Sea over the last two decades. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr

The desiccated sea has also devasted local economies, many of which have long been dependent on fishing, and created ongoing environmental and public health hazards. As the ecosystem in the Aral Sea region has collapsed, winds have spread salt and toxic dust from the sea across thousands of miles. Climate change has compounded issues by causing shorter agricultural growing seasons and droughts that decrease sources of freshwater.

With the Aral Sea now just 10 percent of its former size, and with its water levels having dropped by 20 meters since 1950, the Tech Challenge aimed to find a new way forward for a place former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called “one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.”  In particular, the contest sought technological ideas that ‘disrupted’ traditional development approaches.

“The Aral Sea is truly emblematic of what happens at the local level when we don’t manage the environment appropriately,” said Steven Schonberger, the World Bank’s sustainable development director for the Europe and Central Asia region, in his remarks to the winners. “All of you are a part of the solution. All of you are what makes the difference and allows us to make progress on this critical agenda.”

A gathering of innovators

Overall, 159 innovators from five continents and 38 countries – more than half in Asia – submitted proposals for the Global Tech Challenge 2021 earlier in the year. Each proposal was aligned to one of four categories: sustainable forestry, agriculture and land management, socioeconomic development and information and knowledge. From there, a panel of experts narrowed the competition to 24 leading innovators, who took part in a boot camp to hone their business skills and learn more about the Aral Sea, then pitched their ideas during the challenge week. The top entries included sustainable solutions that addressed both the human and environmental needs of the region and had the potential for scale-up across Central Asia.

With each day dedicated to a different category, proposals on beekeeping, a ‘geowall,’ female empowerment, and data collecting were selected as the Tech Challenge winners

As water disappears, the Aral Sea becomes saltier. In this image, the blue is salt aggregations, the black is water and the red is barren land. Sentinel Hub, Flickr
As water disappears, the Aral Sea becomes saltier. In this image, the blue is salt aggregations, the black is water and the red is barren land. Sentinel Hub, Flickr

“It’s all about believing that locally available resources have the value to restore the Aral Sea and bring it back to what once was,” said Jip Koster, a member of the Netherland’s Netics B.V. team, which won in the agriculture and land management category. Netics B.V.’s entry centered on patented geowall technology built from sediment and other locally-sourced material such as cotton fibers and husks. The wall helps stabilize the land and acts as a barrier to prevent winds from blowing away toxic soil.

Also centering on a landscape-based approach, Uzbekistan’s Aral Honey Garden team, the winner in the sustainable forestry category, introduced a plan to use honey-producing flower plantations to help reforest local ecosystems and boost local livelihoods and incomes. 

“This [win] means that the idea of creating blooming gardens instead of degraded landscapes of Karakalpakstan is not a fantasy, but a reality,” said Natalya Akinshina of the Aral Honey Gardens team. “Having gardens is a way to solve many local issues. The win gave me and our team strength and confidence that we are on the right way.”

 A team from Tajikistan, which earned the top prize for socioeconomic development, focused on an “information engine” to empower females. To make that happen, the team proposed a Women Water Forum to provide online trainings, mentoring, online and offline studies, and connections with related projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The project aims to achieve gender equity through empowering women in water resource management and building their capacity in hydrological fields. “We want to make the Women Water Forum a sustainable platform and make women’s voices heard,” said the team’s Rasulova Khairiniso.

Finally, a Greek team that developed an app – Sentinels for Sustainable Pasture management: Application in the Aral Sea region and Central Asia (SenSPaApp) – took the top prize for Information and Knowledge. Created by kartECO-Environmental and Energy Engineering Consultancy, SenSpaApp is an online cloud-based system that allows users to collect and integrate data and access satellite information to protect grasslands and reduce rangeland destruction across Central Asia.  “The use of the system will result in socio-economic and environmental benefits using locally adapted sustainable management that contribute to the SDGs,” said the team’s Emmanuel Tsiros. “Let’s go and make the grasslands greener!”

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