Turkmenistan, home of the Karakum Desert, is one of the most arid places on earth; it is also the globe's biggest water waster. But before other Central Asian states start tsk-tsking, a recently published report describes the entire region as a world "leader" in the inefficient use of water resources.
The report, published by the journal Nature, shows that Central Asian states consume more water per capita and per every dollar of GDP produced than residents of any other region on the planet. The story also highlights the human element in slowly unfolding ecological disasters across Central Asia. Among the environmental problems bedeviling the region are the disappearance of the Aral Sea, the rising pace of desertification in Turkmenistan and the increasing salinity of agricultural lands in Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan consumes about 5,500 cubic meters of water per capita, which is by far the highest rate in the world. To put the number in perspective, the average Turkmen consumes four times more water than a typical US citizen and 13 times more than residents of China.
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan come in 4th and 5th in the ranking of the world’s worst water wasters, each consuming close to 2,000 cubic meters of water per capita. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are not far behind, ranking 7th and 11th respectively.
Central Asian states are also the worst in the world in terms of water consumption per one dollar of GDP produced. Tajikistan takes first place in this ranking with 3.5 cubic meters of water used per every dollar of GDP. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan rank 2nd, 4th and 6th accordingly. To put things in context, Turkmenistan uses 43 times more water to produce one dollar of GDP than, say, Spain.
As a result of such inefficient use of water resources, most of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers’ water is extracted for the regional states’ economies. In the meantime, the Uzbek portion of the Aral Sea continues to dry up at fast pace.
The report suggests there is enough water in the region to cover its needs and save the sea. The notion that Central Asia is lacking in water is a fallacy, the Nature report shows. The annual availabilities of water per capita for the Amudarya basin is 2,087 cubic meters and for the Syrdarya basin is 1,744 cubic meters, well above the United Nations definitions of water shortages. By comparison, Germany manages with 1,878 cubic meters of water per capita.
If Central Asian states do not implement reforms that promote sustainable development, they will face tremendous threats, including environmental, economic and social degradation, as well as wars for dwindling resources, the Nature report cautions.
"Central Asia's water crisis echoes that in the Middle East and North Africa, where political, economic and environmental issues are also intertwined," the report states. "Central Asian countries must find joint interests and competitive advantages to build a new regional economy, with wise water use at its heart. These countries could have a much more conscious role in world politics and in the global economy by looking at their complementary strengths and merging their markets."