(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Poorly maintained irrigation systems threaten agriculture

[Kyrgyzstan] An illegal worker working on a field.

Water scarce Central Asia relies heavily on irrigation to grow the food it needs to support its increasing population, but a new report says more needs to be done to upgrade existing systems.

The report by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released on 18 August is entitled Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To sustainably meet tomorrow’s food needs.

It said while 34 percent of cultivated land in Asia was irrigated, in Central Asia the figure was much higher: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 61-80 percent; Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan 81-100 percent.

From 1961 to 2003 the area of irrigated land in Central Asia increased from 3.4 million hectares to 10.1 million hectares, the report said, though some experts attribute most of the rise to Soviet efforts.

Central Asia is critical to global agriculture and has some of the largest irrigation systems in the world, but there has been a marked lack of investment since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the report said.

The situation has not been helped by the drying up of huge lakes like the Aral Sea.

Accessing groundwater has become increasingly difficult and costly, and groundwater pollution due to industrial effluent and the lack of sewage systems is also a concern. “Water scarcity will increasingly contribute to food price volatility,” the report said.

The growing population of Asia will lead to greater demand for food from this region, it said. In Central Asia, too, the population of the five central Asian republics is set to rise from 58 million in 2005 to 79 million in 2050, according to the UN.

Experts estimate that the demand for food and animal feed will double over the next 50 years, and growing that extra food will require better management of irrigated land, the report said.

Case study

Prompted by last year’s food price rises, 50-year-old Asanbek Aka decided to plant some chickpeas on his small plot in a village near Osh in Kyrgyzstan. “There was no water for a few weeks and the chickpeas just dried out under the scorching sun. We even did not have any water for drinking for a couple of weeks,” he said.

“During July-August a lot of people try to get as much water as they can from the irrigation and even the piped water system for their crops and gardens. The result is that people in outlying villages like mine simply do not get enough water. Whatever plants we have simply die out because there is no water,” he said.

Water department officials told Asanbek Aka they lacked funds to improve existing irrigation systems.


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