The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, is now reduced to only 1/10 of its former size. The huge expansion of irrigated lands since the early 1920ies has been the major driver behind what is often seen as a major ecological disaster, but it has also created new facts, and new livelihoods. Nevertheless, local farmers continue to be poor. The Aral Sea cannot be saved, but livelihoods can and should be improved. While working at Bonn University, Christopher Martius has led a long-term project on land and water use in the irrigated agro-landscape of Uzbekistan. The project pursued an interdisciplinary approach to improving resource use and livelihoods, bringing together an understanding of local knowledge with research on innovations. Research focused on biophysical, economic and social aspects of resource management and agriculture. Approaches such as increased agroforestry, conservation agriculture, crop diversification and improved tools for resource management were tested and jointly developed with partners as viable avenues for sustainable development. Lessons from this project in a coupled human-environment system allow us to understand how to disentangle a complex situation and contribute to landscape-level solutions.