The region is home to large deserts, has one of the Earth's driest climates, and has been subject to increased human pressures in recent decades that have exacerbated its already harsh conditions.
Since the 1991 Soviet breakup, desertification has increased markedly, causing agricultural yields to drop by 30 percent across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. According to some estimates, approximately 70 percent of the surface of Turkmenistan has become desert, while salinized areas account for 50 percent of Uzbekistan's landmass.
So it seemed like a pretty good idea back in 2006 when the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification (UNCCD) teamed up with those five countries and international donors to launch an ambitious decade-long initiative to stop or reverse desertification in the region.
When the Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management (CACILM) was launched, hopes were high that the plan would be a game changer.
Initially supervised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the program anticipated more than $1.3 billion in funding and its brief included managing pasturelands, forests, and woodlands as well as fostering biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture on irrigated land.
But nearly seven years in, and as the UN marks this year's World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on June 17, ecologists say the results can only be described as a disappointment.
Critics say the funding forecasts for CACILM were wildly optimistic and there has been little coordination among the beneficiaries. Moreover, there has been virtually no centralized management of the program since the ADB withdrew from it in 2010.
Otto Simonett, who is director of the Geneva-based environmental group Zoi, which has assessed CACILM's progress for the Swiss government, a key donor, tells RFE/RL that only 10 percent of the anticipated funds had been allocated by the time of his assessment three years ago.
"This initiative raised very great expectations that finally these real issues related to land degradation were being addressed in Central Asia," Simonett says. "In that respect, when we did the evaluation in 2010 there was only about 10 percent of this initial funding allocated by then. So that means in that respect [CACILM] was definitely not a success."
Simonett adds that the program was plagued by chronic problems on the ground, with salaries in national offices paid sporadically, if at all. He notes, however, that the program achieved some success in teaching farmers sustainable methods.
Jamal Annagylyjova, the UNCCD's Program Officer for Europe, says the program helped boost legislation at the national level.
"The CACILM altogether had about 10 national projects," Annagylyjova says. "As individual projects I think I would rank them from moderate to successful, because they worked with legislation. They had a very good impact on legislation in each country. Mostly it was [regarding a] pasture [and land] code, a forest code. They produced a lot of on the ground technique, working with the farmers, and some of them were documented."
Asked about the program's achievements, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a UN fund for environmental projects, pointed to the publication of an atlas of natural resources of Central Asia, the setting-up of a research program on sustainable land management, and the publication of a study of forestry and pasture-sector management in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In a written response to RFE/RL, the GEF also cites the establishment of an "initial database and CACILM website," although the related website is no longer active.
The GEF concedes that the estimate of $1.3 billion in fund-raising was "an overestimation" that raised "unrealistic expectations in terms of investments."
The project has consistently missed deadlines. Annagylyjova says an internal review of the process has recommended a rescheduling that she hopes will lead to "a more focused approach."
"Reality actually brought its own schedule," Annagylyjova says. "As the Asian Development Bank withdrew from the strategic partnership agreement of the donors, there was a delay in the implementation of the some activities and there was a lack of leadership on the side of the donors. The agreement and the mobilization of the resources for the second phase, which is the most important thing for the program to continue, was delayed."