Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tashkent 'Threatened' by Turkmen Reservoir

Tashkent fears a new Turkmen reservoir could have dire consequences for parts of Uzbekistan.
By Karina Insarova

Scientists in Uzbekistan are voicing serious concerns over the ecological and environmental effects of a new artificial lake being created in the eastern part of Turkmenistan near the Uzbek border.


Observers fear the "Golden Age Lake" - being built in the Karashor depression of the Karakum desert - will fuel political tensions in Central Asia over water distribution.


When completed, the new man made lake - the personal initiative of the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niazov - will amount to 3460 sq km, with a depth of 130 m. The project will cost Asghabat 6 billion US dollars.


According to Turkmen engineers, it will increase the amount of cultivated land in Turkmenistan from 1.8 million to 2.2 million hectares. Turkmen scientists have calculated that 500,000 tons of cotton, 300,000 tons of grain and hundreds of thousands of tons of fruit will be grown annually on bordering the lake.


But Uzbek scientists say the project could have dire consequences for certain areas of Uzbekistan.


Despite Turkmenistan's assurances that the lake will only be filled with discharge waters, there are concerns in Uzbekistan that it will also be supplied by the Amudarya river - the main water artery for the countries of Central Asia, which even at present levels struggles to provide for all the inhabitants of the region.


Scientists are particularly worried about the effects of the new lake on the water supply for the Priaral region: an area on the Amudarya river delta, which has been in ecological crisis for the last 30 years because of the shrinking Aral Sea.


The sea was formerly one of the largest internal reservoirs in the world and its destruction is partly blamed on the excessive use of water from the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers for irrigation.


Between the 1960s and the turn of the century, the level of the Aral Sea fell by 20 m, while the area it covered was reduced by two-thirds.


According to Professor Erejep Kurbanbaev, the director of the non-governmental Eco-Priaralya organisation, the shrinking of the Aral Sea has directly affected the Priaral region, which has suffered catastrophic water shortages with knock on social, economic and ecological effects.


"The ecological catastrophe has brought about a drastic worsening of the living conditions, " said Kurbanbaev. " A large number of industries have closed and many people have left the region."


The area's water shortages have become even more severe in the last three years due to a drought in the republic of Karakalpakstan in north-west Uzbekistan. The construction of the Turkmen lake could reduce the amount of water flowing into Karakalpakstan even further.


The Turkmen authorities are apparently unconcerned by the fears that have been expressed over their new lake, which they intend to complete by 2004. If Ashgabat does indeed go ahead with the project, it will inevitably lead to tensions with Uzbekistan.


It's a dispute Uzbekistan could well do without, as it is already embroiled in a fight with Kyrgyzstan over the Toktogul reservoir, located on Kyrgyz territory, on which both countries depend. Tashkent claims that Bishkek is trying to cut its supply of water. The latter maintains that it is having to use more for its own energy needs.


Karina Insarova is an IWPR contributor