There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
In 2011 the US State Department praised Turkmenistan for improving its child labor record. But those findings might be taken with a pinch of salt. Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most closed, secretive societies. Few outside observers get in to see what’s really going on in its cotton fields. In March 2012, Human Rights Watch contradicted the State Department, reporting that child labor continued to be used in cotton harvesting and calling Turkmenistan’s rights record “abysmal.” (Still, Turkmenistan has not received the same flak for child labor abuses as neighboring Uzbekistan, which has long been in the international spotlight for forcing children, students, and public sector workers into its cotton fields at harvest time.)
Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop, moreover. The Environmental Justice Foundation says it takes about 2,720 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt.
On a visit to Turkmenistan earlier this month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov sought Ashgabat's support in his fight to block hydroelectric projects upstream in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t the desiccated Aral Sea that keeps Karimov up at night. He fears the projects will give his neighbors too much control over this limited resource. Last month, he warned that tensions over diminishing water resources could lead to regional conflict.
So, though he brooks no criticism about how his own aging infrastructure wastes water, he won't be too happy if the Turkmen siphon off more water through their 1375-kilometer Karakum Canal – which starts slurping out of the Amu-Darya upstream from Uzbekistan’s plantations in Karakalpakstan.