Kazakhstan: Save the wetlands, protect the economy

Kazakhstan women living in protected wetland areas are making felt to generate additional sources of income.

Valentina Zhakupbekova’s family depended on the exploitation of Kazakhstan’s vast wetlands - thousands of square kilometres of rich soil and abundant lakes, with caviar-bearing fish, unique birds and aquatic flora.


  • More than 1,626,700 hectares of wetlands have obtained Ramsar protected status.
  • Illegal fishing fell by between 45 percent and 62 percent between 2004 and 2010 in the three project sites.
  • Residents from 500 villages have developed eco-friendly business ventures.
  • More than $3.2 million was raised for sustainable biodiversity projects.

Her husband was an illegal poacher, supporting their four children with the fish he caught. After he died, Ms. Zhakupbekova had no job and a family to feed, so, supported by UNDP, she learned how to create felt products made from wool, a commodity in abundant supply.

She opened a local retail shop and now sells her popular handmade slippers, boots and jewellery - and trained seven other women.

Environmental management

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many families were left with little work other than illegal poaching. This led to fewer migrating birds and fish, and disrupted the environment. Farms extracted an unsustainable amount of water for irrigation, which further damaged the wetlands and decreased the region’s water level.

The Government, Global Environment Facility and UNDP teamed up to salvage and protect the wetlands in Alakol, Tengiz-Korgalzhyn and the Ural River Delta.

Kazakhstan ratified the Ramsar Convention, a global environmental treaty to preserve wetlands. Now, seven sites covering more than 1,626,700 hectares have protected status, and reserves in Tengiz-Korgalzhyn and Naursum are the first sites in Central Asia to appear on the UNESCO Natural Heritage list.

UNDP helped initiate the revision of the country’s water code, which introduced strict restrictions on the use of water, fishing and hunting in the wetlands and regulations for agricultural use.

Illegal fishing fell by 45 percent in 2010 in the Ural River Delta, by 62 percent in Tengiz-Korgalzhyn and by 40 percent in Alakol-Sasykkol, compared with 2004.

Wetlands and economic opportunities

Wildfires consumed only 300 hectares in Tengiz-Korgalzhyn in 2010, down by 15,000 hectares compared to 2004.

A survey found that while there was a steady influx of birdwatchers and other tourists, there were no guest houses or accommodation available - a clear need for developing eco tourism.

UNDP introduced a programme to develop businesses in these rural communities, allocating more than $1 million for microcredit programmes to aid community business start-ups in the three pilot areas.

Supported by the Government’s country-wide microcredit programme, the initiative eventually expanded into 25 protected areas across the country, resulting in more than 34 projects and 150 new jobs.

Residents from 500 villages developed businesses, building greenhouses, manufacturing souvenirs and clothing, bottling kumys (a national drink made from horse milk), and creating fishing ponds.

These small businesses continue to operate profitably, and more than 500 villagers now have their own source of income.

New equipment, trucks and motorboats allow tourists to visit wetland sites without damaging the ecosystem. Over the course of a year and a half, more than 6,000 tourists visited the Korgalzhyn reserve, providing $40,000 for the national wetland reserve, and helping residents finance their operations.

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