From environmental disaster to hope


Volunteers countering poor health conditions and economic difficulty caused by the decline of the Aral Sea


Since the diversion of the rivers feeding it approximately 50 years ago, the Aral Sea has been steadily decreasing in size. Formerly one of the world’s four largest lakes, today, the Aral Sea is less than one tenth of its original size and continues to shrink. As the water level recedes, the land it leaves behind is heavily polluted, often with residue from chemicals that were expelled during weapons testing as well as industrial by-products. Two of the outcomes of the Aral Sea disaster are the increase in disease, notably tuberculosis (TB); and a lowering in the standard of living caused by a shift in the skills required to work.


To counter this, a recently finished UNV/UNDP project targeting Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, aimed to improve the low living standards and reduce the effect of TB through the empowerment of volunteers in the local communities.


Volunteers from the local community have not only been taught about TB itself, but also how to create and distribute information about its prevention and treatment to their neighbours. Some of these have not only been given this knowledge, but also trained in how to teach other volunteer leaders the skills that they have learned. In total, 29 people have completed courses enabling them to be Community Volunteer Trainers and over 3,000 Community Volunteers have themselves been trained in outreach with over 25,000 information leaflets distributed and 105 training sessions completed.

Community Volunteer Trainers providing a training to local health care workers in Karakalpakstan on volunteer led community health


As well as this, specific community improvement projects have been completed, such as the installation of a clean water pipeline to reach over 5000 residents, and the provision of necessary medical equipment for under-resourced Primary Health Centres.


There are many examples of real success on the ground and the impact of the projects is felt by individuals within the community. For example, in April 2010, Zamira, a 36-year-old housewife was visited by her neighbour, Feruza, for a friendly chat. Over many cups of tea, Feruza told Zamira about the training sessions she had attended. She shared with Zamira what she had learned about the disease, including symptom details and the methods used to treat the condition. She also said that she had become one of the project’s community volunteers and had been charged with the task of distributing information regarding TB symptoms, prevention and treatment. As part of this work, she gave Zamira a leaflet containing relevant information.


Just two days later Zamira was frantically searching for Feruza’s leaflet. Her son, Farhod, had woken up with the very same symptoms that Feruza had described just days before. She quickly contacted Feruza. The volunteer kept her cool and suggested that Zamira take her son straight to the doctor for a medical examination. Feruza accompanied here two neighbours to the medical services and after tests the doctors confirmed that Farhod had contracted the disease. Fortunately though, they had caught it early, meaning that immediate treatment implied a very good chance of recovery.


Both Zamira and Farhod knew the importance of taking the medication exactly as prescribed and kept to a precise routine for the required seven months. Finally the long-awaited day arrived when Farhod finished his treatment and would once again be tested to ensure that his medication had successful cured his TB. Zamira breathed a much-awaited sigh of relief when the doctors shared the news that Farhod showed no trace of TB and was completely healthy.


Since then, Farhod has returned to normal life and now receives excellent marks at school and is even preparing for the prestigious Academic Olympiad in Mathematics. What’s more, he hopes to start playing football and is eagerly awaiting his doctor’s permission to attend training classes. Zamira has expressed her gratitude to those who helped to preserve her son’s health. “Because of Feruza and the TB project, my son’s disease was detected at an early stage,” said Zamira. “He could completely recover after proper treatment.”


The project leaders in Uzbekistan hope to be a center of environmental inspiration for the country and maybe even Central Asia. They plan to build on the momentum of Rio+20 and take the movement beyond UN negotiations and into the living rooms, universities, schools, communities, and streets of the country. 60% of the Uzbek population are youths and for 2012 the project aims to mobilize and educate them about the urgency of sustainable development issues and encourage them to involve themselves in the negotiation process of Rio+20.


To do so, the project leaders are in the process of formulating training courses and model Rio+20 events at local universities that will focus on the Aral Sea disaster and its consequences for human health. They will focus on how volunteerism and non-formal education can be part of the solution to avoiding and alleviating some of the harshest symptoms of climate change.


The team are also making a Rio+20 promotional video outlining the Uzbek crisis in order to showcase the environmental challenges facing the country such as the Aral Sea disaster, water and land degradation, resource scarcity and conflict, waste management, and climate change, with the aim of empowering and educating the country’s youth on how to become more actively involved in addressing these problems through voluntary action. Their hope is to show how there is a genuine local context to the summit and build support for Rio+20 in Central Asia.


To fill the gap created by the completion of this project, a new joint UN project aimed at sustaining livelihoods in the Aral Sea area is to be launched prior to Rio +20.


See below a video that showcases the work of the community volunteers and trainers who go door to door to educate locals on the effects of tuberculosis: prevention, testing and treatment.