Turkmenistan: Karakum as you are, as you were

Turkmenistan: Karakum as you are, as you were
Not taking the long view: Authorities routinely insist on the importance of the cotton crop. / Turkmen government website
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin May 31, 2023

As soon as the news was confirmed that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had won another term, Turkmenistan’s president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov fired off a congratulatory letter.

“Under your leadership, Turkey will … further enhance the country’s standing on the international stage,” he wrote.

A statement on the government website went on to declare that relations between Turkmenistan and Turkey are based on “an unshakeable friendship, brotherhood and mutual trust.”

As if to underscore that point, Turkish authorities earlier this month agreed to deport an Istanbul-based Turkmen activist and blogger, Farhat Meymankuliyev. According to the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Meymankuliyev, 30, who is mainly known for the YouTube videos he makes under his assumed name, Farhat Durdiyev, was detained by Turkish police on May 19 and sent on a plane home within one day.  

In light of the highly coruscating videos that Meymankuliyev has produced about what is happening in Turkmenistan, it is probably safe to assume a lengthy time in prison will ensue.

There are some problems that the Turkmen regime can wish away through repression. Others will be harder to solve that way. 

On May 28, Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website, reported on how water in reservoirs along the indispensable Karakum Canal has sunk to levels unseen since 2001. 

The scale of the shrinkage of the water basin is well illustrated by the state of the Khauz-Khan reservoir. At full capacity, the reservoir should extend over an area of 210 square kilometres. At the end of May 2021, a dry year, satellite images showed it had shrunk to 135.5 square kilometres. As Meteozhurnal has found, the reservoir now only covers 75.4 square kilometres.

The website has offered a few explanations. One is the sustained lack of precipitation and the abnormally warm weather seen earlier this year. That has only compounded the effect of a drought experienced in 2021-22. 

Another lesser contributing factor was an incident in January (also detected by Meteozhurnal), when abnormally cold weather caused an accumulation of ice jams on the Karakum Canal that then sent water rushing over the levee. For more than 10 days, water gushed uselessly into the sands of the Karakum Desert, forming a channel almost 20 kilometres in length. 

The consequences of the Karakum Canal ailing are impossible to understate. Over the decades in which it was built, from the 1950s through to the 1990s, the canal entirely reshaped Turkmenistan’s economy. By diverting water resources from the east to the south and southeast of the country, it enabled a radical increase in crop growth. Cities like the capital, Ashgabat, as well as Turkmenbashi and Balkanabat in the west, and Mary in the southeast, are to some or greater extent dependent on the water carried by the Karakum Canal.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, a note of intense urgency has entered public pronouncements on the water crisis, which is now fully upon the region. 

In an emergency decree issued on April 3, the Uzbek government forecast that water levels in the Amu Darya, the river that feeds the Karakum Canal, would in the “coming years” shrink by 15-20%. While making that bleak prediction, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s office highlighted the need to address poor water management, outdated irrigation methods and a rapid increase in consumption caused by population growth. 

As it that was not enough, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is seemingly making notable strides toward completion of its own 285-kilometre Qosh Tepa Canal, which it hopes to use for irrigation of up to 550,000 hectares of farming land. That canal too will be filled with water drawn from the Amu Darya. 

In a development that should cause leaders in Tashkent and Ashgabat alike to have sleepless nights, armed forces from Afghanistan and Iran reportedly came to blows on May 27 in a deadly battle sparked by rival claims to water from the Helmand River.

Central Asia as a collective is attempting to pursue a more constructive diplomatic route. On May 26, the special representatives on Afghanistan from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan convened in Ashgabat along with senior figures from numerous international organisations, including the European Union and the United Nations. According to a Turkmen Foreign Ministry account of this gathering, all parties took the unanimous position that the international community needed to come together in promoting stabilisation of the political, economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. 

If anything more specific than that was agreed, the Turkmen statement was not prepared to divulge it. 

None of this is to say that Turkmenistan flatly refuses to accept the scale of the challenge ahead when it comes to water.

In an op-ed written for the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan in July 2022, a commentator writing under the pen-name Kira Kramer noted that the authorities had started speaking more publicly about their concerns. 

But the officials tasked with implementing the improvements needed to remedy the situation are in an impossible position. 

In early May 2022, President Berdimuhamedov ordered Esenmyrad Orazgeldiyev, the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for agriculture, to conduct an analysis on the state of the country’s rivers and canals, and then to come up with a plan to improve them and usher in greater use of water-saving technology. A few weeks later, Berdimuhamedov was in similarly peremptory fashion demanding from Orazgeldiyev that farmers produce a “large harvest of cotton this year.” The insistent reliance on cotton has historically contributed heavily toward water shortages in Central Asia.

This folly is of a piece with how the Berdimuhamedov regime operates in general. In November 2021, when his father, Gurbanguly, was still president, Berdimuhamedov went to Glasgow to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, where he delivered a knowingly dishonest speech about how Turkmenistan had enthusiastically embraced the values of environmentalism. But, as the Guardian newspaper has revealed, easily fixable leaks from two gas fields in Turkmenistan contributed more to global warming in 2022 than did all the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions.

By way of mild mitigation, Turkmenistan’s turn to higher-yield, intensive farming is producing some positive results. Specialist agriculture news site East Fruit reported on May 26 on the delivery to Tajikistan of a truckload of Turkmen greenhouse-grown tomatoes. In its report, East Fruit cited a Khujand-based consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who spoke in remarkably glowing terms about this consignment to his northern Tajik city.

“There was a line of buyers for it. This product is particularly appealing to [companies] supplying goods to supermarket chains,” said Bakhtiyor Abduvokhidov, seemingly without mentioning that he runs one such company. “Turkmen greenhouse tomatoes have a visual advantage over Uzbek ones [because they come with green twigs attached], which is very popular with buyers and guarantees good sales.”

This will be music to the ears of Turkmen tomato-growers, who have repeatedly in the past couple of years had to deal with health and safety inspectors in Russia, an important export destination, insisting that their product is infested with moths

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This column originally appeared on Eurasianet here.