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New prestige water project may harm the environment

[Turkmenistan] The Karakum canal requires constant dredging. IRIN
Experts say revitalising the neglected Karukum canal would be a better way of meeting water needs than building a giant, isolated reservoir in the middle of the desert
A giant artificial lake being created in Turkmenistan's Karakum desert to provide for the country's growing water needs may cause more problems than it solves, observers have warned. "The lake could pollute massive swathes of land with salt, and most of the water would evaporate from an open-air lake anyway," Michael Wilson of the EU's Tacis support programme told IRIN in the capital, Ashgabat. Government sources in Ashgabat said the huge capital works project would cost about US $4.5 billion dollars and be completed within 20 years. The reservoir, to be known as the Golden Age Lake, would provide sufficient water for Turkmenistan's growing population and for agriculture, and render the arid country less dependent on the Amudar'ya river, which it shares with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Water security remains a key concern for Central Asia's leaders. The project is the brainchild of President Saparmurat Niyazov and, when completed, the lake is expected to have a surface area of 3,460 sq km. It is expected to create some 4,000 sq km of farmland capable of growing 450,000 mt of cotton and 300,000 mt of grain a year. But Wilson pointed out that feeder canals supplying water to the new reservoir would be unlined, meaning that "at least half the water would soak into the sand and be lost before ever reaching the lake". But Ashgabat is pushing ahead with the project despite grumblings from the region and scepticism from international organisations. "We are doing this to make sure the next generation will not experience any water problems," Niyazov said at a ceremony announcing the launch of the project in May 2000, which he called "a historic event for the whole Turkmen people". Grandiose farming projects in the former Soviet Union have created ecological disasters in Central Asia. One of the best known is the destruction of the Aral Sea, bordered by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It has shrunk by hundreds of kilometres since the 1960s following the diversion - for cotton irrigation - of the two mighty rivers that once flowed into it. Other observers told IRIN that locating the new lake in the middle of nowhere was impractical. "The lake will be hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, so what good will it do?" a civil servant who wished to remain anonymous said. But government officials told IRIN they dismissed the fears of some experts that the project could harm the environment, saying it would only have ecological benefits. "The lake is the right solution to our lack of water and it will reduce pollution of the Amudar'ya," Ashir Muhamedoo, the chief of the Amudar'ya middle water authority, told IRIN in the second city of Turkmenabad. The Karakum Desert already has a 1,100-km canal running through it, built in 1962 for irrigation purposes and to supply the capital's water needs. The canal has suffered from lack of maintenance, and scientists argue that dredging and lining it would go a long way towards boosting Turkmenistan's useable fresh water supply. Scientists in neighbouring Uzbekistan are voicing serious concerns over the ecological and environmental effects of the new artificial lake. Despite Turkmenistan's assurances that the lake will only be filled with discharge waters, there are concerns from Tashkent that it will also be supplied by the Amudar'ya river - one of two main water arteries 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 Amudar'ya river delta which has been in ecological crisis for the last 30 years because of the shrinkage of the Aral Sea. The area's water shortages have become even more severe in the last three years due to a drought in the Republic of Karakalpakistan in northwestern Uzbekistan. The construction of the Turkmen lake could reduce the volume of water flowing into Karakalpakistan even further.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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