Turkmen “Golden Lake” May Prove Green Disaster
Desert reservoir will soak up water and money faster than any improvements it may bring, say Turkmen and Uzbek environmentalists.
The environmental costs of building a giant reservoir in the middle of the desert easily outweigh the benefits it will bring to Turkmenistan’s agricultural sector, experts say.
In neighbouring parts of Uzbekistan, ecologists say the lake could prove the latest man-made disaster to hit the region, adding to the problems created by the drying up of the Aral Sea.
On July 15, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov opened the sluices to mark the formal launch of a reservoir dubbed Altyn Asyr, after the “Golden Age” which Turkmenistan’s people are officially enjoying.
This grand project has been years in the making; construction began in 2000 under Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor Saparmurat Niazov.
Official reports on the reservoir have accentuated the benefits it will bring. One hundred kilometres long and 19 wide, the lake will be used to collect water drained off from agricultural lands. This will go through a process of desalination and purification so that it can then be re-used for irrigation.
The Turkmen government hopes this massive recycling operation will save precious water and reduce the environmental cost of irrigated agriculture in a region with an arid climate.
A lecturer at Turkmenistan’s University of Agriculture, who asked not to be named, says subsoil drainage created by years of irresponsible land management has become a huge problem, making farmland increasingly saline.
At the moment, excess irrigation water in northeastern Turkmenistan as well as neighbouring parts of Uzbekistan accumulates in the naturally-formed Lake Sarykamysh on the two countries’ border. Elsewhere, the water – contaminated with salt from the soil and pesticides – goes into irrigation canals, into the ground, or back into the Amu Darya river which is the main waterway in this part of Central Asia.
The Altyn Asyr reservoir is presented as the answer to all these ills – preventing contaminated water from seeping back into the soil and waterways, and reducing overall use through recycling.
Experts in Turkmenistan agree on the scale of the challenge, although many fear the artificial lake will create more problems than it resolves.
Among their concerns are that as it collects in the lake, much of the water will simply sink into the desert sands beneath. Meanwhile, surface water will evaporate under the hot sun, concentrating the harmful chemicals in the remaining volume.
Finally, as with the Aral Sea which lies north and east of the lake, areas around the expanse of water will dry and quickly turn into a dustbowl, from which the wind will spread poisonous chemical particles far and wide.
“The idea of collecting drainage water from all regions of the country and then using it in a rational way sounds promising in itself, but they [the authorities] should be completely open about the downside,” said one Ashgabat-based analyst. “The benefits of constructing the Turkmen lake are like ankle-high water, whereas the damage will be knee-high.”
A local environmentalist warns that the reservoir could share the fate of Lake Sarykamysh, which has filled up with agricultural chemical residue and become a stagnant, drying “effluent pool”.
“In time, the new Turkmen lake will turn into another time bomb, seriously aggravating an ecological situation that is already extremely problematic,” he said. “The old time bomb [Sarykamysh] is about to go off – why plant a new one?”
A veteran water engineer from Dashoguz, the province where the lake is located, gave a vivid description of the possible outcome.
“Imagine a children’s sandpit, and a huge tanker truck begins pouring water into it,” he said. “The sandpit turns into a mass of wet sand. This is how the Kararakum [desert] will look in 30 or 40 years if drainage waters are collected there.”
An excavator driver working on the reservoir confirmed that the sandy terrain made a poor foundation.
“We keep digging out the bottom and removing the sand that constantly slips down, but more of it slides down again,” he said.
A retired economist agreed that sand was a major obstacle to making lasting structures.
“The sands of the Karakum desert are constantly on the move, which means that the two water-collection canals that have already been dug, with a combined length of 1,003 km, will fill up with sand,” he said. “Maintaining stability in the water flow and all of the lake’s facilities is going to cost many billions in state subsidies.”
Other analysts, too, say the project is likely to consume never-ending amounts of money as well as water.
“To date, expenditure on constructing the water-collection canals and the lake itself has already run to substantial sums of money, several billion dollars,” said the Dashoguz-based engineer.
The Turkmen government has been reticent about giving precise numbers for project spending. In 2002, a figure of four billion dollars was cited, later rising to 6.5 billion.
“Now that so much money has been put into it, there’s no going back, and construction work will be completed regardless of the cost,” said an anonymous staff member at Turkmenistan’s ministry for water resources.
Across the border in Uzbekistan, environmentalists in Khorezm region and the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic are looking on in horror.
They are only too aware of the ecological catastrophe caused by the shrinking of the Aral Sea over recent decades, caused by over-use of the waters of the Amu Darya and Central Asia’s other great river, the Syr Darya. This was a direct result of intensive cotton production, a grand project of the Soviet era.
An environmentalist from Karakalpakstan recalls the drought of 1999 and 2000, when the lower reaches of the Amu Darya all but disappeared – leaving residents of this part of Uzbekistan without water.
“Every spring, I worry whether there’s going to be water in Karakalpakstan and Khorezm; whether the irrigation canals will fill, so that people can raise their livestock and get some kind of harvest,” she said.
She is in little doubt that the Turkmen reservoir will make things worse.
“How can it be that a desert lake, where the water literally disappears into the sand, is more important than the lives of millions of people?” she asked. “This ‘Turkmen sea’ can only be filled by rivers of tears from the residents of Karakalpakstan and Khorezm. It will be the Sea of Tears and Woe.”
Another Uzbek environmentalist, working on the Aral Sea problem, said there were grave concerns that far from restricting themselves to drainage from their own territory, the Turkmen authorities were quietly drawing off extra water from the Amu Darya to fill the reservoir.
“We don’t trust the Turkmen,” he said. “Since independence [in 1991] they’ve been taking more than the agreed volumes of water out of the Amu Darya. “It would be possible to use satellite imagery to monitor the removal of fresh water from the Amu Darya via these collection canals. But no one is doing that.
To the frustration of local ecological activists, the Uzbek authorities have not offered much opposition to their neighbour’s giant water project – in stark contrast to their vocal hostility to hydroelectric dam projects upstream in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
A scientist based in Karakalpakstan noted this contrast in behaviour, saying, “The Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan is playing along with the Turkmen, even conducting joint studies of water resources in the Amu Darya basin. I don’t know what all this is for. Our people are demanding an international ecological feasibility study of plans to build dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, yet Tashkent isn’t demanding the same thing for the Turkmen lake.”
The environmentalist from Karakalpakstan added, “Uzbekistan depends on the waters of the Amu Darya… but it’s unable to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbour and tell it what to do.”
She concluded, “I think that after so many years of misunderstanding. it is important that both countries finally sit down at the negotiating table, with other neighbours and international arbitrators also present, and solve this problem once and for all.”
(The names of interviewees in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been withheld out of concern for their security.)