Water has always been associated with power in the Central Asia. In traditional Turkmen society, local chieftains made their homes at the water source. Niyazov has effectively followed this tradition. Fountains are common in the capital, Ashgabat, flowing down the front of the entrance to the president's palace and cascading over golden statues of his likeness. Plans for a gigantic water park in the center of Ashgabat are in the works.
During his holiday address April 4, Niyazov spoke in grandiose terms about the need for environmental protection. "We must safeguard our Amu Darya River and the Caspian Sea, our reservoirs . . . other rivers, water ponds, wells and underground sources," he said. But the president did not outline any concrete protection measures in his speech. Instead, he focused on grand projects such as the Friendship Dam, located on the border with Iran, and the plans for Lake Turkmena giant artificial lake in the Kara Kum Desert. In addition, Niyazov recently announced an intention to create an artificial river in Ashgabat to ensure that the Turkmen capital does not "lag behind" leading world capitals.
The Lake Turkmen project, which would cover over 1,000 square miles (approximately 2,000 square km), has drawn criticism from abroad, dampening Niyazov's claims that the lake is "designed to change the destiny of Turkmen people for generations to come." Citing the dangers of robbing water from the already overused Amu Darya River, experts at Stratfor, a leading private international intelligence firm, characterize the project as a Soviet-style environmental disaster waiting to happen.
Given the arid regional environment, the amount of water lost from evaporation would make the lake project extremely inefficient. The Integrated Regional Information Networks, part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that estimates of water wastage in urban areas of Turkmenistan reach as high as 27 percent. Because the Amu Darya originates in Afghanistan and is the main water source for Uzbekistan's cotton industry, the project has the potential to strain already tenuous relations with Turkmenistan's neighbors.
At the same time the Turkmen leadership is focusing on the lake project, a vital water link the Kara Kum Canal is falling into a state of disrepair. Built during the 1950s, the canal stretches over 680 miles (1,100 km) from East to West across the country, irrigating approximately 900,000 hectares of land, and providing water to major cities. Today, silt has built up in many portions of the canal bed, and at least 40 percent of the water resources are wasted, according to Michael Wilson, the European Union resident adviser for the TACIS program.
A drought in the past two years has exacerbated the problem. Wilson explained; "The water situation industrially and domestically is deteriorating rapidly because there is no investment in the infrastructure. The infrastructure is old. It's constantly breaking down. The seepage and the loss of water through it is enormous."
Although it contributes over $200 million to Turkmenistan's economy annually, the cotton industry has also taken its toll on Turkmenistan's water resources. A report by the Institute of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan states that "the situation with water resources is aggravated by high water intake for irrigation and soil leaching, low efficiency of irrigation systems, leakage and seepage losses, and evaporation." As pesticides and fertilizers used for cotton cultivation make their way into the water supply, the Amu Darya River has ranked as one of the 10 most polluted bodies of water in Central Asia for the past seven years running. In the northern portion of Turkmenistan, where water problems are the most severe, many people end up drinking saline water.
Rural residents rarely have access to clean water. Anatoly Abramov, an assistant program officer for UNICEF in Ashgabat explained; "Disruption of safe drinking water supplies and sanitation exposes the population to higher risks of waterborne diseases. Anemia is prevalent in 74 percent of school children and in nearly all pregnant and lactating women."
Because water, like natural gas and electricity, is free to all citizens of Turkmenistan, there is little incentive for conservation, so the president's appeal on Water Day will likely go unheeded. Over the long term, projects like the Friendship Dam and Lake Turkmen may aggravate water-related dilemmas confronted by Turkmenistan.