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Targeted training of water personnel for environmentally vulnerable regions of Uzbekistan with acute climate change


Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

Rationale: The reform initiative is the targeted training of experts on water-related issues, with knowledge of sustainable water resource management and water security in the Aral region. As future leaders of the nation/policy-makers armed with modern knowledge and international experience, they can solve problems in relation to environmental degradation and climate change. Problem: The crisis situation due to the drying of the Aral Sea resulted from unsound economic policy and the irrational use of water resources to develop irrigated agriculture and an increase in irretrievable water consumption.

This environmental problem with serious socio-economic consequences directly or indirectly affects all Central Asian states. The root causes of the problem are economic and political. During the years when the problem was created, the region’s 50 million inhabitants were “recruited” to create their “own problems”, and they could not say “no” due to political barriers. Local people are suffering acutely from this catastrophe. But now, times have changed. However, one-off initiatives and slogans will not solve the problem! A professional approach and local-level action are needed.

Patriotic local professionals with knowledge were mobilised to solve the region’s problem. A unique feature of the initiative is that the trained professionals are also specialists and leaders, and patriots who love the region. For local people, the problem is a matter of life or death. A key factor is the professional level of the training for local water specialists who are patriotic and leadership-oriented. As members of society, they have the right to call on everyone to help solve these “inherited” problems. This is what makes the initiative innovative and the forces at work in it sustainable.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

The environmental catastrophe is mainly linked to water. The idea was adapted from another of my innovative projects in which a group of academics and practitioners were invited to solve a specific water problem of the Aral region. During my Fulbright professorship in America, the idea that my colleague, Professor Michael Edelstein, and I came up with to form a coalition of academics and practitioners from different sectors to work on the water problem received financial support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding. Water scientists, sociologists, geographers, ecologists, economists, physicists, and psychologists from the USA and Uzbekistan arranged an expedition to the Aral disaster zone in Uzbekistan and a return journey to the USA, and a joint seminar for the programme’s participants was held. The results of the joint research were used to publish the study “Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and its Lessons for Sustainability”, which sets out a variety of opinions and approaches to solve the problem, and ways of mitigating the adverse consequences of this catastrophe. The enterprising idea and its implementation in practice: openness, democracy, and a coalition of forces led to fruitful work. The very admission that nature has been failed changes the situation for the better. Because the longer we ignore reality, the worse the situation will get. According to an Uzbek saying: “if you try to hide an illness, your temperature will give you away”. Over the last few years, there has been a loss of hope for the future and people have started to abandon their homelands, where their ancestors have lived for centuries. For instance, the Mo’ynoq fish canning plant in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, where there used to be thousands of jobs, is simply deserted. There is no water and no business, and no hope for tomorrow. To make this idea a reality, with support from the EU, a network of UZWATER centres at eight institutes of higher education in Uzbekistan was created. It enabled targeted training to be given to water professionals at master’s degree level. Through this initiative, local water professionals and leaders shared experience with international experts who deal with catastrophes and their solutions.

 How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

The initiative was targeted at the Aral Sea environmental disaster zone and the catastrophe region with dual climate change due to unjustified water consumption. From 2015, targeted training for specialists in sustainable water resource management began to be delivered through the network of UZWATER centres. Armed with a knowledge of modern catastrophe management techniques, the professionals began their work at Karakalpak State University and at local level. Experience gained in previous years showed that non-recurrent funding for risk management (or remediation) did not yield tangible/the desired outcomes. As leaders of the nation, local water specialists began working on their own and called for concrete action from the government to significantly reduce the scale of the damage. As a specialist, a trained professional solves problems at local level, but as a leader and policy-maker, (s)he also has the power/authority to make demands of other people. A specialist who is familiar with water security and diplomacy policy and also real solutions to climate change problems can speed up the resolution of water-related and other environmental problems. The political, environmental and social activity of local professionals can determine the initiative’s level of sustainability. The number of young water specialists in this initiative who returned to their places of origin within five years of completing their studies is 35.

 What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

To implement the initiative, an EU grant was received from the TEMPUS Programme and a network of UZWATER centres at eight different regional universities in Uzbekistan was created. The main purpose of creating these centres at institutes of higher education was to provide targeted training to professionals at master’s degree level in sustainable water resource management and environmental problem-solving. The water professionals are being trained jointly by the universities, the local authorities “Vodokanal” and “Ekologii”, and the water sector. Each university is training a target group of water specialists who will have a lasting impact on environmental situations at local level in future. The process can be observed through the universities’ official websites. Together with the water sector and other state management sectors, educational organisations are implementing long-term projects and having a direct impact on the improvement of the water situation and climate change in the region. The gender- and age-based approach to problem-solving is a unique approach to problem-solving in this initiative. Women who hold master’s degrees are being prioritised, because, as future mothers, they bring up children, and, as future leaders of society, they actively participate in the process of solving environmental problems at local level. A trained young water expert is a future leader of a family and a policy-maker at the same time, and a water engineer is an active social force. Rectors of universities who have direct influence and a voice at the ministerial level where important public policy decisions are made and adopted at government level participated in the innovative project. The costs of this initiative are non-recurring, but the benefits are long term and sustainable in terms of their social, economic and environmental outcomes, where a water specialist is an agent with major influence and an active force.

 What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

Elementary bureaucracy and old-fashioned thinking made it very difficult for me to sign the initial letters of agreement for cooperation with EU partners. The rectors of the institutes of higher education were supposed to agree to stakes in the TEMPUS project, for some reason it alarmed them, which they realised later when they saw the foreign experience with their own eyes and the concrete results of the UZWATER project. Being a pioneer of anything is always difficult. However, my overseas experience in the USA with the Fulbright grant and my certainty helped me to take a special step in water reform. I think it is far more difficult to change people’s thinking than to change the water situation. There were organisational difficulties until I got the majority of the UZWATER project’s supporters on board. If local professionals and society are not involved in solving the problem, then outside influences will be like one-off or temporary initiatives. This initiative is balancing the economy and the environment with the help of local actions and is helping to boost the sustainability of climate change measures in relation to water resource management. This has made the initiative special. Convincing executive managers to change the water situation in the region and of the need to support this initiative requires a huge amount of strength, energy, experience and restraint on the part of any changemaker. The national TEMPUS office in Uzbekistan has supported the initiative. However, until progress is made at local level, the UZWATER changemaking project will not have any positive outcomes. Managers of the organisation who directly have a decisive vote at local level and who were responsible for implementing the innovative project did not think in a progressive way, and this made things difficult in the early stages of the project.

 In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

This initiative solves environmental problems and aims to bring about sustainable water resource management and mitigate the consequences of climate and environmental catastrophes related to water, and also prevent future water problems. The sustainability and continuity of the initiative are connected with an improvement in living conditions for the population. A local water specialist, future leader and policy-maker is first and foremost a human being and a family person, and (s)he will strive to improve living conditions. This is where the driving force and sustainability of my initiative come from. A shift in policy on the training of professionals and an annulment of the rules on targeted training or the special quota for professionals from water catastrophe regions could make it impossible to achieve the aim of the initiative. I am supporting young people’s efforts to study the subject of “Sustainable water resource management”. I campaign during lectures at institutes of higher education, in reports, and at seminars, conferences, and meetings with young people at UZWATER centres. I am involved in committees that develop educational programmes for sustainable water resource management. As director of the National UZWATER Centre at Samarkand State Institute of Architecture and Construction and a professor at the department of “Water Supply, Sewerage and Water Resource Conservation”, I support the network of UZWATER centres at institutes of higher education in Uzbekistan.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

I am certain that the water problem in Uzbekistan and Central Asia is a global one, but there are solutions. If this problem is viewed as one equation with many unknowns, then the correct solution is to decide the order of the unknowns that yield a positive outcome at local level in terms of their importance and feasibility. My overseas work experience, joint work with foreign colleagues and partners, and joint publications have helped me to carry out my reform plans to change the water situation in the region. The creation of the network of UZWATER centres in eight regions of Uzbekistan and the fact that young people are being drawn to the centres are inspiring other people at local level, especially young people who have an interest in the situation. I constantly study and work in close contact with my foreign partners and the employers of water professionals who are interested in improving conditions at the centres and the level of training for professionals at local level. I set up the innovative UZWATER project and was the national coordinator for its implementation. I developed a new educational work experience plan for future water specialists on the basis of my work experience in the USA. The importance of this initiative is not yet understood. I realised that, to implement my ideas fully, I need to apply for grants.