Turkmen Leaders Urged to Prioritise Water-Saving

Turkmen Leaders Urged to Prioritise Water-Saving

Thursday, 27 August, 2009
Following a United Nations report calling for better management of water resources to avert food shortages across Asia, analysts say Turkmenistan is a prime example of a state heavily dependent on crumbling, ineffective irrigation systems.

A report published on August 17 by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Water Management Institute warned that Asia faced a large rise in demand for food, creating the risk of shortages. Given the lack of spare land available for cultivation and the increasingly unpredictable climate, the report concluded that the only option was to improve the way existing water resources were managed, for example by investing in more efficient irrigation systems.

Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert, and agriculture exists only by virtue of irrigation systems dating back 50 or 60 years. Ninety-five per cent of all farmland is irrigated artificially, using a network of canals and 15 reservoirs, not counting the giant new man-made Altyn Asyr “sea”, which is supposed to collect the excess water drained away from the fields so that it can be recycled.

Experts say Turkmenistan’s water-management systems are now in an advanced state of dilapidation, as little maintenance work has been done since the Soviet collapse of 1991 left it an independent state.

“The [canal] networks don’t have concrete linings, which leads to the loss of tens of thousands of cubic metres of water,” said an observer in the northern Dashoguz region. The water, he added, “either sinks into the ground or evaporates from the surface”.

Annadurdy Khajiev, a Turkmen economist based in Bulgaria, agreed, saying, “The old irrigation canals are not up to standard. Watercourses tend to be overgrown with reeds, and it would take immense amounts of money to clear them. They do not save water.”

A former official from the water resources ministry blames lack of funding for the decrepit state of the canals. The agencies which used to look after the network have been closed down and responsibility for its upkeep handed over to local government – a retrograde step for a system that requires centralised management, he said.

Commentators say irresponsible use of water by farmers, combined with obsolete irrigation methods, means a great deal of water goes to waste. They say the authorities should be looking at new irrigation methods so as to keep crop production up.

“Why don’t farms use the drip irrigation methods, or pipes with pumps installed on them, or concrete-lined canals?” asked Khajiev.

Apparently ignoring the situation, the Turkmen government now plans to increase production of grain and cotton, the latter a particularly thirsty crop. Around a million tons of each is produced every year.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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