Uzbekistan in the UN General Assembly: steps forward to protect the environment

There is a high-level virtual gathering in New York City this week as heads of state and governments from around the world address the 75th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The leaders will propose solutions to major problems facing the global community and lay the groundwork for the future.

This year’s meeting of the General Assembly – the 75th – features an address by the President of Uzbekistan H.E. Shavkat Mirziyoyev who has brought dramatic and important changes to Central Asia. For the last four years the region’s historic core and geopolitical focal point – Uzbekistan – has been immersed in a whirlwind of reform without precedent in the region. As a result of large-scale reform measures in the areas of political and economic modernization, a new Uzbekistan is being established. 

There is no doubt the current reforms are all organized around a commitment to the rule of law, the rights of citizens, elective governance, a market economy, religious tolerance, cordial relations with the great powers without sacrificing sovereignty, and a new embrace of the Central Asian region as an actor on the world stage.

In line with all these developments, President Mirziyoyev, in his address to the UN General Assembly, put forward new initiatives which extend from adopting an “International Code on Voluntary Commitments by States during the Pandemic” to holding an International Forum “Central Asia at the Crossroads of World Civilizations” in Khiva in 2021 in cooperation with UNESCO. 

At the same time, the leader of Uzbekistan gave special emphasis on long-lasting environmental issues and proposed several initiatives in this sphere. The most important one is about adopting a special resolution of the UN General Assembly on the declaration of the Aral Sea region as a zone of environmental innovation and technology.  

As many readers know, the shrinking of the Aral Sea is an ecological tragedy that affects the wider region. As it began to dry up the sea left behind salts, other minerals, and toxins in the soil. Due to the increase in the salinity of the water, the number of inhabiting fish species decreased from 38 to 6. Toxins not only contaminated the soil but were also picked up by winds and storms, and dispersed over other areas, including crop lands. This led to increased health problems such as respiratory diseases and cancers.The change in the size of the Aral has also affected the local climate and resulted in increased occurrence and worsening of storms. As a result, more than 100,000 local people were forced to leave the region, and up to 5 million people have suffered health problems.

Thus, the resolution is aimed to promote common efforts in bringing foreign investments, “green” technologies and a “green” economy to the Aral Sea region. The Government of Uzbekistan is keen to develop in northern parts of the country energy and water saving technologies, to prevent further desertification and migration caused by ecological degradation, to develop ecotourism, and implement other measures to raise the standard of living.  

The UN special resolution will ensure that key risk factors can be addressed by stimulating investment and focusing on cross-cutting issues such as climate change, environmental degradation, sustainable urbanization and agriculture, as well as food security, poverty and inequality.

In fact, President Mirziyoyev’s initiative was first introduced by him at the Summit of International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) in Turkmenistan in 2018. It goes in line with Uzbekistan’s closer involvement in global environmental issues by enforcing international declarations, conventions and other UN treaties on the environment.

Adhering to the international norms of sustainable development and the key principles of its Constitution, Uzbekistan has carried out judicial reforms to both improve the current regulatory tools for environmental protection, and produce new tools if needed, all consistent with international standards.

The country has adopted and implemented strategic documents such as the national program to protect the environment, conserve biodiversity, and phase out ozone depleting substances along with a series of climate initiatives.

Uzbekistan’s law on environmental control has introduced an important stage in advancing the country’s environmental regulations by providing strong regulatory frameworks enabling the productive involvement of specialized civil society institutions in addressing environmental challenges in the country. Additionally, given the important role of NGOs in solving environmental issues, a social dialogue has been established to execute projects that seek to improve the environment across the country.

Besides the Aral Sea disaster, Central Asia is facing a variety of other environmental problems due to climate change and industrial development. According to UNDP estimates, 7% of cultivated lands, 48% of pasture lands, and 5% of forest lands are subject to destructive processes. The annual damage from the loss of humus (the main organic matter of the soil containing nutrients necessary for higher plants) in Central Asian countries, taking into account lost income from erosion processes, amounts to $ 12.5 billion. In addition, in Central Asia from 40 to 60% of irrigated lands are saline or waterlogged. 

By 2050, the results of climate change, including natural disasters such as wildfires and droughts, will reduce global GDP growth by 3%. 

By the end of the century, the average temperature in Central Asia will rise by 7 degrees Celsius (C). According to forecasts, if the average temperature rises by 2 degrees C, glaciers can lose up to 50% of their volume, and warming of 4 degrees C will deplete them by 78%, leading to a shortage of fresh water and an increase in natural disasters. According to the World Bank, a shortage of fresh water could lead to a drop in GDP in the region by 11%.

 President Mirziyoyev used his address to the UN General Assembly to put forward an initiative to establish an “International Day of protection and restoration of ecological systems”. 

The idea is relevant and urgent as well. The UN proclaimed 2021-2030 as a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, which is designed to significantly scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems to combat the climate crisis and improve food security and water supply. 

The initiative to establish an International Day for the protection and restoration of ecosystems under the auspices of the United Nations would draw the world’s attention to the development of measures to solve environmental problems not only in Central Asia, but throughout the world.

As Uzbekistan has sought to reform and modernize state institutions and the economy in order to improve its citizens quality of life it has not neglected to address environmental issues that can have a longer-term impact than today’s economic policy choices.