Turkmenistan Grapples with Water Crisis

Via Silk Road Reporters, another article on Turkmenistan’s water crisis:

California’s recent restrictions on water usage have garnered massive headlines, but California is hardly the only “water stressed” state. In Central Asia, Turkmenistan is about to introduce water restrictions, a first for the post-Soviet desert nation.

The problem is not limited to Turkmenistan, but extends across all of post-Soviet Central Asia. An arid climate, stagnant economy and soaring population, combined with water’s inequitable distribution and rising consumption in agricultural and energy production exacerbate regional tensions.

Twenty-four years after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, Central Asia’s new nations have yet to resolve the pressing issue of equitable distribution of the region’s scant water resources. Unlike the region’s energy reserves, the Soviet legacy of massive but inefficient hydrological works and agriculture has thus far proven unsuccessful in attracting significant foreign investment.

During the Soviet era, water resources sharing among the five Central Asian republics Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was on the basis of master plans drawn up in Moscow for water resources development in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins. The year after the sudden implosion of the USSR, in 1992, the five newly independent Central Asian nations established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to continue to respect the existing principles until the adoption of a new water sharing agreement could be proposed by the Commission. Despite over 150 ICWC meetings, little concrete has been done.

Turkmenistan, at 188,456 square miles, slightly larger than California, is bordered in the west by the Caspian, in the northwest by Kazakhstan, in the north and northeast by Uzbekistan, in the southeast by Afghanistan and in the south and southwest by Iran. Turkmenistan’s climate is defined as subtropical desertic.

The Kara Kum Desert, which covers 80 percent of Turkmenistan, is one of the driest deserts in the world; some places have an average annual precipitation of only 0.47 inches. Overall, average national precipitation is only 7.5 inches, ranging from less than 3.1 inches in the northeast to 11.8 inches in the Kopetdag mountain zone in the southwest. Precipitation in the form of rain and snow occurs during the winter season, mainly between October and April. Contributing to the country’s aridity, the country’s river runoff is estimated at only .23 cubic miles per year. Several rivers are found in Turkmenistan, most of them flowing into the country from neighboring countries.

The largest and most important waterway in Turkmenistan is the 850-mile Karakum Canal, the world’s largest, built between 1950 and 1987, which transports water to the capital Ashgabat and to oases in the south of the country. The Karakum Canal’s inlet at the Amu Darya River is located just after the river enters Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan.

The Karakum Canal supports 13,500 square miles of rangeland and 3,800 square miles of cropland. Like most Soviet-era irrigation canals the Karakum was unlined, consequently losing each year an estimated 18 percent of the total flow. Worse, this seepage has caused massive waterlogging and salinization of the surrounding land. Turkmenistan remains entirely dependent on water diverted from the Amu Darya. During the Soviet era and afterwards, irrigation networks were expanded without proper engineering attention to efficient conveyance of water, using mostly unlined canals and ditches with loss rates estimated to exceed 30 percent. As a result of such inefficient techniques, an estimated 73 percent of irrigated land in Turkmenistan is now salinated.

This increasingly dire state of affairs prodded Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on April 5, “A Drop of Water- a Grain of Gold” national holiday, to pledge his government to curb water wastage, telling his citizens, “Water has been considered the sacred source of life and abundance from ancient times, because it awakens nature to life, turning our endless steppes and valleys into the blooming land of plenty. Therefore, our ancestors knew the value of water and cherished it, comparing each drop with a grain of gold.”

Giving concrete examples, Berdymukhammedov said that the government would oversee the “systematic introduction of conservation technologies in the construction of water facilities and systems, the application of best practices and the latest scientific achievements,” which includes a nationwide program to build new water-lifting stations and water storage reservoirs and increase the capacity of the existing facilities to improve water supply to settlements and agricultural lands along with new facilities to store water reserves. Given Turkmenistan’s massive influx of cash over the past decade due to its rising natural gas sales, Berdymukhammedov is in the enviable position of being able to fund such projects rather than depend on foreign lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The increased use of concrete or plastic lined irrigation canals and the adoption of new efficient technologies such as sprinkling, drip-irrigation, subsoil irrigation, and careful attention to water consumption for crop irrigation will significantly reduce water losses and seepage into the ground as well as alleviate problems associated with rising groundwater table. Adoption of water-saving technologies is costly, but it is essential for improved efficiency of water use. This technological approach would make it possible to increase Turkmenistan’s irrigated areas while raising crop yields and it is obvious that the government is now moving in this direction.

Later this week Berdymukhammedov will make a state visit to Korea, arriving on April 11. The following day the Turkmen leader will attend the opening of the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu, before meeting President Park for summit talks on April 13. Attendance at the WWF will give Berdymukhammedov the opportunity to interact with cutting edge specialists on water issues, and he will doubtless return with new ideas on how to tackle Turkmenistan’s aquatic problems.

In the interim, whether Berdymukhammedov’s exhortations will “trickle down” to the Turkmen populace is another matter. In 2014 the scientific weekly Nature reported that Turkmenistan was the world’s top consumer of water per capita, a not surprising state of affairs considering that households in Turkmenistan do not pay for domestic water consumption, one of the USSR’s more cherished populist legacies, but perhaps not for much longer.

Last November Berdymukhammedov during a cabinet meeting noted that Turkmenistan was the only country in the world that offered its population free gas, electricity and water, along a number of other benefits and privileges. In January Berdymukhammedov informed the citizenry during a televised address that his administration would begin installing gas meters in households; with his new focus on water conservation, it seems like that water meters cannot be far behind.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 11th, 2015 at 1:41 am and is filed under Turkmenistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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