ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN TURKMENISTAN

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN TURKMENISTAN

Environment issues in Turkmenistan including contamination of soil and groundwater with agricultural chemicals, pesticides; salination, water logging of soil due to poor irrigation methods; Caspian Sea pollution; diversion of a large share of the flow of the Amu Darya into irrigation contributes to that river's inability to replenish the Aral Sea; desertification. Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 64.98 million Mt (2012 est.). country comparison to the world: 53. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Turkmenistan’s major environmental problems are the various effects of the desiccation of the Aral Sea and desertification, which is reducing the stock of arable land. Related to these problems are an intensifying shortage of water, which is an absolute requirement for the development of agriculture, industry, and large population centers anywhere in the country. The cult-of-personality dictatorship of former President Niyazov combined with a shortage of resources to limit citizen input on environmental issues. Turkmenistan’s participation in regional environmental programs has been stymied by government control of environmental information. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, environmental regulation is largely unchanged in Turkmenistan. The new government created the Ministry of Natural Resources Use and Environmental Protection in July 1992, with departments responsible for environmental protection, protection of flora and fauna, forestry, hydrometeorology, and administrative planning. Like other CIS republics, Turkmenistan has established an Environmental Fund based on revenues collected from environmental fines, but the fines generally are too low to accumulate significant revenue. Thanks to the former Soviet system of game preserves and the efforts of the Society for Nature Conservation and the Academy of Sciences, flora and fauna receive some protection in the republic; however, "hard-currency hunts" by wealthy Western and Arab businesspeople already are depleting animals on preserves. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan has several major reserves: Badkhyz, Repetek, Krasnovodsky and Kugitang. Environmental - international agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements. =

Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr. describe environmental and health conditions in Ecocide in the USSR.

Animals in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan flora includes thousands of species of plants, ranging from desert grasses and saksauls to mountain forest trees. There are 91 species of mammals — including leopards, argalis, koulans and goitered gazelles — 372 species of birds, 74 species of reptiles and 60 species of fishes. While flora and fauna are relatively scarce in the desert, there is more biodiversity in the mountain river valleys. Some relatively and plants are protected in the Badkyz, Krasnodar and Repetek Reserves. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

Flamingos are found in the Caspian Sea. The Kara-kum Desert is home to poisonous snakes such as cobras and vipers, Varan (sand crocodiles), goitered gazelles, Wild Asiatic asses, wild cats, tortoises, tarantulas, scorpions and other spiders, lizards and insects.

Sand crocodiles are grey-striped monitor lizards that reach 1.8 meters in length. Found in the brutally hot Repetek Desert Reserve in the Kara-kum Desert in eastern Turkmenistan, they have sharp backward-pointing teeth and are regarded as fast runners. They live around eight years, reside in burrows, which they plug in the winter when they hibernate, and eat rodents, snakes, other lizards, insects and sometimes scorpions and tarantulas. When they bite something they often don’t loosen their grip until their prey is dead. Females lay up to 24 eggs, which are almost the same size as chicken eggs.

Turkmen consider it a good omen to have a sand crocodile burrow on their land. The lizards are believed to eat poisonous snakes and keep sandflies a way. In the old days they were hunted and their tough flexible skin was used to make leather shoes and a variety of luxury goods.

Pollution in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has fewer critical water- and air-pollution problems than most of the other former Soviet republics because it has relatively little heavy industry, a low concentration of motor vehicles, and low population density.Turkmenistan’s major pollution problems are contamination of soil and groundwater by agricultural chemical and a complex of conditions resulting from water levels and industrialization on the Caspian Sea. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

The most productive cotton lands in Turkmenistan (the middle and lower Amu Darya and the Murgap oasis) receive as much as 250 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare, compared with the average application of thirty kilograms per hectare. Furthermore, most fertilizers are so poorly applied that experts have estimated that only 15 to 40 percent of the chemicals can be absorbed by cotton plants, while the remainder washes into the soil and subsequently into the groundwater. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Cotton also uses far more pesticides and defoliants than other crops, and application of these chemicals often is mishandled by farmers. For example, local herdsmen, unaware of the danger of DDT, have reportedly mixed the pesticide with water and applied it to their faces to keep away mosquitoes. In the late 1980s, a drive began in Central Asia to reduce agrochemical usage. In Turkmenistan the campaign reduced fertilizer use 30 percent between 1988 and 1989. In the early 1990s, use of some pesticides and defoliants declined drastically because of the country's shortage of hard currency. *

Desertification in Turkmenistan

Desertification is a serious problem in Turkmenistan. One factor that contributes to it is overgrazing by livestock, a serious problem in all of the Central Asian countries. Too many animals on too little land has resulted in desertification and soil erosion. The number of animals in Turkmenistan doubled to 5.5 million between 1941 and 1991.

According to estimates, as a result of desertification processes and pollution, biological productivity of the ecological systems in Turkmenistan has declined by 30 to 50 percent in recent decades. The Garagum and Qizilqum deserts are expanding at a rate surpassed on a planetary scale only by the desertification process in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa. Between 800,000 and 1,000,000 hectares of new desert now appears per year in Central Asia. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The most irreparable type of desertification is the salinization process that forms marshy salt flats. A major factor that contributes to these conditions is inefficient use of water because of weak regulation and failure to charge for water that is used. Efficiency in application of water to the fields is low, but the main problem is leakage in main and secondary canals, especially Turkmenistan's main canal, the Karakum Canal. Nearly half of the canal's water seeps out into lakes and salt swamps along its path. Excessive irrigation brings salts to the surface, forming salt marshes that dry into unusable clay flats. In 1989 Turkmenistan's Institute for Desert Studies claimed that the area of such flats had reached one million hectares.

The type of desertification caused by year-round pasturing of cattle has been termed the most devastating in Central Asia, with the gravest situations in Turkmenistan and the Kazak steppe along the eastern and northern coasts of the Caspian Sea. Wind erosion and desertification also are severe in settled areas along the Karakum Canal; planted windbreaks have died because of soil waterlogging and/or salinization. Other factors promoting desertification are the inadequacy of the collector-drainage system built in the 1950s and inappropriate application of chemicals.

Caspian Sea Issues and Turkmenistan

An important goal of Turkmenistan's foreign policy is working in international groups to solve a range of issues involving the Caspian Sea. That body of water, which affords Turkmenistan a 500-kilometer coastline with numerous natural resources, including oil and fish, is threatened by extreme levels of pollution, as well as fluctuating water levels. In August 1993, Turkmenistani delegates attended a meeting in Moscow to discuss the status of international claims to jurisdiction over the Caspian Sea and its resources. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Treaties between the Soviet Union and Iran dating from 1921 and 1940 gave each country free navigation and fishing rights within ten miles (sixteen kilometers) of the entire Caspian coastline, putting other coastal nations at a disadvantage. A second issue is the cartel formed by Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran to control sales of Caspian caviar on the world market as a means of preventing individual Caspian Sea states from selling too much to obtain hard currency. *

Thus far, however, the cartel lacks an enforcement mechanism. Turkmenistan is a member of the Caspian Sea Forum, which includes all the nations bordering the sea. Until 1995 that organization had not taken concrete action to limit pollution by oil extraction and shipping activities of the member countries, however. In late 1994, Turkmenistan joined Kazakstan, Azerbaijan, and Russia in forming the Caspian Border Patrol force for joint border security. In 1995 and 1996, friction increased among the Caspian states as Iran and Russia exerted pressure for the sea's resources to be divided equally among the group, a formula that would prevent the other three countries from taking advantage of their proximity to rich offshore oil deposits. *

Aral Sea and Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan both contributes to and suffers from the consequences of the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Because of excessive irrigation, Turkmen agriculture contributes to the steady drawdown of sea levels. In turn, the Aral Sea's desiccation, which had shrunk that body of water by an estimated 59,000 square kilometers by 1994, profoundly affects economic productivity and the health of the population of the republic. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Besides the cost of ameliorating damaged areas and the loss of at least part of the initial investment in them, salinization and chemicalization of land have reduced agricultural productivity in Central Asia by an estimated 20 to 25 percent. Poor drinking water is the main health risk posed by such environmental degradation. In Dashhowuz Province, which has suffered the greatest ecological damage from the Aral Sea's desiccation, bacteria levels in drinking water exceeded ten times the sanitary level; 70 percent of the population has experienced illnesses, many with hepatitis, and infant mortality is high. Experts have warned that inhabitants will have to evacuate the province by the end of the century unless a comprehensive cleanup program is undertaken. Turkmenistan has announced plans to clean up some of the Aral Sea fallout with financial support from the World Bank . *

Karakum Canal and Environmental Costs of Turkmenistan Irrigation

Karakum Canal is the world's longest irrigation canal. It stretches 1,350 kilometers (745 miles) from Haun-Khan to Ashkhabad and brings water from the Amu-Darya to the inhabited areas in southern Turkmenistan. Draining the Amu-Darya, it runs most of the length of Turkmenistan and is used to supply water for cotton farms. It has contributed to large cotton harvests and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The Karakum Canal, which has a capacity of 500 cubic meters per second, accounts for almost all irrigation in Ahal and Balkan provinces along the northern reaches of the Kopetdag Range. The canal also supplies additional water to the Murgap oasis in southeastern Turkmenistan. The main canal was built in sections between 1959 and 1976, initially providing irrigation for about 500,000 hectares. Plans call for construction to continue until the canal reaches a length of 1,435 kilometers and a carrying capacity of 1,000 cubic meters per second, enabling it to irrigate 1,000,000 hectares. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Karakum Canal leaks a lot of the water it carries and is badly in need of reconstruction. From the air its looks like a thin ribbon fringed by kilometers-wide bands of weeds. The Turkmenistan government admits that 28 percent of the water disappears before it reaches it destination. Scientist think the figure is close to 60 percent. Agricultural run off ends up in Sarykamish Lake or swamps and lakes that have appeared miles from the canal.

Inefficient irrigation, leakage from canals, and salinization in the cotton-growing regions of the Kara-kum Desert irrigated by waters from the Amu Darya and other rivers, have produced two million acres of salt marshes. *

The Kara-kum Desert suffers from severe droughts and the environment problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Deep bore wells have salinity levels; 90 percent above what is considered acceptable by the United Nations. The region is a very poor and undeveloped. People complain that there is no work, no money and no food. They suffer from a number of diseases brought about in part by environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Golden Age Lake and Other Bungled Solutions to Turkmenistan’s Desertification

The Golden Age Lake (Golden Lake of the Turkmen Era) is the name given to a vast reservoir that is planned for the middle of the desert into the natural Karashor depression in remote northern Turkmenistan. Turkmen planners say that the $4.5 billion, 75-mile-long, 40-mile-wide and 80-meter- deep reservoir will only collect water that now disappears into the desert and will bring in more water for agriculture, cool the hot weather a bit and increase water supplies for the future.

Luke Harding wrote in The Guardian, “Turkmen officials insist the lake will attract migratory birds, stimulate biodiversity and make flowers and plants bloom in a country that is 80 percent desert. Once completed the lake is supposed to cover 770 square miles, reach a depth of around 70 metres and hold more than 130bn cubic metres of water. Filling it could take 15 years and cost up to $4.5bn. [Source: Luke Harding, The Guardian, July 17, 2009]

In a speech in 2004, to announced that the 21st century was of the Golden Era of the Turkmen People, Niyazov said, Lake Turkmen “will be a giant artificial lake, never before seem in the history of humanity and designed to change the destiny of the Turkmen people for generations to come.” Planners say the lake will boost Turkmenistan’s cultivated land by 22 percent, with 500,000 tons of cotton, 300,000 tons of gain and thousands of tons of fruit.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Turkmenbashi was also a self-declared landscape artist. He promised to create a desert forest that would improve the climate and last for a millennium. He ordered the planting of tens of thousands of young trees in immensely long rows at the center of Ashgabat and on great swaths of land outside the city, a sort of instant forest. But although Bashi’s trees, mostly a type of juniper, were two or three feet high when planted, the forestation was not a success. Drip irrigation had been rigged for them, but they were baked by the sun and blown flat by the wind; a full third had that peculiar rust-red hue, the vivid color of an evergreen’s death. “They are called arça,”my new guide, whom I’ll call Merdan, said. (Mamed was busy that day, or perhaps wary of all my questions.) “He, um, likes them.”[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

Problems with the Golden Age Lake of the Turkmen Era

Critics say the Golden Lake reservoir will drain Turkmenistan’s treasury and create an ecological disaster by tapping too much water from the Amu Darya and devastate areas downstream, particularly the Uzbekistan region of Karakalpakstan, which is already suffering from the shrinkage of the of the Aral Sea. The critics say that the primary purpose of the lake is for the Turkmenistan government Niyazov to showcase its power over nature and that the ecological and regional problems the project creates far outweigh any benefits it might provide.

Luke Harding wrote in The Guardian, “Experts have expressed dismay at the quixotic Soviet-style project. They point out that much of the water pumped into the searing desert will evaporate, adding that it is likely to be contaminated with toxic pesticides and fertilisers” Much of water destined for the reservoir is expected to seep into the desert from the unlined canals that carry it to the reservoir. Plus, a lot of water will evaporate from the reservoir itself. Whatever benefits that will be provided will only last for 15 or 20 years before the land became too salty and mineral-laden to be of any good as is the case with te Aral Sea and the land around it.

The lake is expected to be completed in 2020. Analyst predict that by that time maybe three million people will be displaced or regional “water war” will break out. Currently Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan roughly divide the 60 cubic kilometers of water that flows through the Amu Darya. Once the river is connected to the network of canals that fill the reservoir an addition six to 10 cubic kilometers of water—that would otherwise go to Karalalpakat in Uzbekistan—will flow into Turkmenistan.

The long tern of affects of the Golden Age Lake project are expected to be similar to those that have occurred around the Aral Sea. Turkmenistan has failed to enter into any discussion with other Central Asian nations about water use. No one in Turkmenistan dares speaks out against it out of fear of being imprisoned or tortured.

Berdymukhammedov Keeps the Golden Lake Idea Alive

In July 2009, Turkmen elders open a drain channel to start filling Turkmenistan’s Golden Age Lake. Luke Harding wrote in The Guardian, “The central Asian nation of Turkmenistan has cemented its reputation for eccentricity with an ambitious attempt to create a vast lake in the centre of the country's Karakum desert. In a logic-defying feat that might have appealed to Stalin, engineers have begun pumping water from a network of canals that irrigate cotton fields across the country. The aim: to make what has been poetically dubbed Golden Age Lake. [Source: Luke Harding, The Guardian, July 17, 2009 >>>]

“At an opening ceremony the country's president, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, plunged a spade into the earth and released the first water from a tributary canal. Surrounded by shimmering desert, dignitaries and local tribesmen, he declared: "We have brought new life to these once-lifeless sands." In comments reported by the state-run Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper, he said: "I am convinced that our great deeds will be recalled by glory." The president then rode off on a jewellery-bedecked horse, climbed into his helicopter and flew back to the capital, Ashgabat.

“This is not the first project in Turkmenistan to raise eyebrows. The government recently unveiled a new tourist resort on the shores of the Caspian Sea designed to rival Las Vegas. Currently, western tourists have great difficulties obtaining visas for Turkmenistan, and most foreign journalists are banned. >>>

The former Soviet republic's late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov dreamed up the Golden Lake project before his sudden death in 2006. His successor, Berdymukhamedov, buoyed by soaring incomes from gas exports, decided to press ahead with the idea despite fierce objections from environmentalists. "These canals will serve as a major source of irrigation to turn the Karakum into a blossoming oasis," Berdymukhamedov told a crowd of more than 1,000 people that included top government officials and diplomats. >>>

Environmental Activists in Turkmenistan

There are few environmental groups in Turkmenistan. One environmentalist told AFP she has been unable to register her NGO - an environmental protection group - despite promises of greater political freedom from the government. Catena is a Turkmenistan environmental group that has success persuading the government to ban open burning of trash and leaves.

Antoine Blua of Radio Free Europe wrote: “ President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who came to power in late 2006 after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, has pledged to implement reforms, but critics say little has changed so far. With the 2003 NGO law, there's no officially registered independent groups that are able to operate openly within the country. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009 |+|]

Farid Tukhbatullin and Andrei Zatoka co-founded the Dashoguz Ecology Club in 1992. The environmental NGO was shut down in 2003, when the Turkmen government cracked down on civil society. After spending several months in jail, Tukhbatullin left the country, and now heads the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. He tells Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service that Zatoka continued campaigning on environmental issues in Turkmenistan. "As far as I know, he continued his [independent] activity on environmental education working with schoolchildren and farmers," Tukhbatullin says. "He tried to explain to farmers what is ecological farming, how to make fertilization in order to get better harvest." |+|

Turkmen Environmental Escapes Jail

In January 2009, a harsh five-year sentence for assault given to environmental activist Andrei Zatoka's was overturned and replaced with an undisclosed fine. Antoine Blua of Radio Free Europe wrote: it marked the second time in three years the prominent Turkmen environmental activist has narrowly avoided going to prison for what he believes were trumped-up charges. A regional court in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province overturned the sentence handed down last week against Zatoka for assault, Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reported from the court hearing. The court ruled that Zatoka, 53, be freed upon paying an undisclosed fine. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009 |+|]

“Zatoka was found guilty on October 29 of attacking a man nine days earlier in a Dashoguz market, and received the maximum available sentence for the assault charge. Zatoka has denied the charges, claiming that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack at the market, and that he inflicted no bodily harm on the alleged assailant. When police arrived, Zatoka claims, they let the other man go and detained him in what he believes was a politically motivated setup. Both rights and environmental groups say the fact that Zatoka, whose environmental group was shut down by the state in 2003 and who is currently serving a suspended three-year sentence owing to another politically charged case, has been under pressure from the authorities for years.|+|

“Zatoka, a biologist by training who holds dual Russian and Turkmen citizenship, sent a letter to Russia's ambassador in Ashgabat ahead of last week's court hearing. In the letter, published by the Turkmen opposition website chrono-tm.org, Zatoka requested "diplomatic and legal support in connection with repression against me by the law enforcement bodies, which is politically motivated and is because of my Russian citizenship." He also said it was unclear why he was being targeted by the authorities, but that "I can only guess that it is linked to the fact that I was closely familiar with some Turkmen dissidents, particularly Farid Tukhbatullin." |+|

“Zatoka spent 1 1/2 months in prison in 2006-07 on charges of weapons possession and storage of poisonous substances. After he was taken into custody at Dashoguz's airport, three snakes, snake poison, and an unregistered weapon were reportedly found at his home. A letter posted by Russian human rights groups that came to his defense noted that, as a herpetologist, Zatoka had the "right to store the poison of studied reptiles and a light pneumatic weapon." Zatoka's case was followed closely by Russian rights groups and the Kremlin. The Russian and Turkmen foreign ministers discussed Zatoka's situation, and a rights watchdog under the Russian presidency took an active role in trying to secure his release. In the end, Zatoka was released after being handed a three-year suspended sentence, which effectively banned him from leaving the country.” |+|

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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