TURKMEN “GOLDEN LAKE” MAY PROVE GREEN DISASTER  Desert reservoir will soak up 
water and money faster than any improvements it may bring, say Turkmen and 
Uzbek environmentalists.  By IWPR staff in Central Asia

POVERTY TAJIKISTAN’S ONLY GROWTH AREA  More than half the population are 
already classed as poor, and things look set to get worse as incomes and job 
opportunities are squeezed.  By Sayrahmon Nazriev in Qurghonteppa and Aslibegim 
Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe

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Desert reservoir will soak up water and money faster than any improvements it 
may bring, say Turkmen and Uzbek environmentalists.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

The environmental costs of building a giant reservoir in the middle of the 
desert easily outweigh the benefits it will bring to Turkmenistan’s 
agricultural sector, experts say.

In neighbouring parts of Uzbekistan, ecologists say the lake could prove the 
latest man-made disaster to hit the region, adding to the problems created by 
the drying up of the Aral Sea.

On July 15, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov opened the sluices to mark the 
formal launch of a reservoir dubbed Altyn Asyr, after the “Golden Age” which 
Turkmenistan’s people are officially enjoying. 

This grand project has been years in the making; construction began in 2000 
under Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor Saparmurat Niazov. 

Official reports on the reservoir have accentuated the benefits it will bring. 
One hundred kilometres long and 19 wide, the lake will be used to collect water 
drained off from agricultural lands. This will go through a process of 
desalination and purification so that it can then be re-used for irrigation.

The Turkmen government hopes this massive recycling operation will save 
precious water and reduce the environmental cost of irrigated agriculture in a 
region with an arid climate. 

A lecturer at Turkmenistan’s University of Agriculture, who asked not to be 
named, says subsoil drainage created by years of irresponsible land management 
has become a huge problem, making farmland increasingly saline.

At the moment, excess irrigation water in northeastern Turkmenistan as well as 
neighbouring parts of Uzbekistan accumulates in the naturally-formed Lake 
Sarykamysh on the two countries’ border. Elsewhere, the water – contaminated 
with salt from the soil and pesticides – goes into irrigation canals, into the 
ground, or back into the Amu Darya river which is the main waterway in this 
part of Central Asia.

The Altyn Asyr reservoir is presented as the answer to all these ills – 
preventing contaminated water from seeping back into the soil and waterways, 
and reducing overall use through recycling. 

Experts in Turkmenistan agree on the scale of the challenge, although many fear 
the artificial lake will create more problems than it resolves. 

Among their concerns are that as it collects in the lake, much of the water 
will simply sink into the desert sands beneath. Meanwhile, surface water will 
evaporate under the hot sun, concentrating the harmful chemicals in the 
remaining volume. 

Finally, as with the Aral Sea which lies north and east of the lake, areas 
around the expanse of water will dry and quickly turn into a dustbowl, from 
which the wind will spread poisonous chemical particles far and wide. 

“The idea of collecting drainage water from all regions of the country and then 
using it in a rational way sounds promising in itself, but they [the 
authorities] should be completely open about the downside,” said one 
Ashgabat-based analyst. “The benefits of constructing the Turkmen lake are like 
ankle-high water, whereas the damage will be knee-high.”

A local environmentalist warns that the reservoir could share the fate of Lake 
Sarykamysh, which has filled up with agricultural chemical residue and become a 
stagnant, drying “effluent pool”. 

“In time, the new Turkmen lake will turn into another time bomb, seriously 
aggravating an ecological situation that is already extremely problematic,” he 
said. “The old time bomb [Sarykamysh] is about to go off – why plant a new one?”

A veteran water engineer from Dashoguz, the province where the lake is located, 
gave a vivid description of the possible outcome. 

“Imagine a children’s sandpit, and a huge tanker truck begins pouring water 
into it,” he said. “The sandpit turns into a mass of wet sand. This is how the 
Kararakum [desert] will look in 30 or 40 years if drainage waters are collected 

An excavator driver working on the reservoir confirmed that the sandy terrain 
made a poor foundation. 

“We keep digging out the bottom and removing the sand that constantly slips 
down, but more of it slides down again,” he said.

A retired economist agreed that sand was a major obstacle to making lasting 

“The sands of the Karakum desert are constantly on the move, which means that 
the two water-collection canals that have already been dug, with a combined 
length of 1,003 km, will fill up with sand,” he said. “Maintaining stability in 
the water flow and all of the lake’s facilities is going to cost many billions 
in state subsidies.”

Other analysts, too, say the project is likely to consume never-ending amounts 
of money as well as water.

“To date, expenditure on constructing the water-collection canals and the lake 
itself has already run to substantial sums of money, several billion dollars,” 
said the Dashoguz-based engineer. 

The Turkmen government has been reticent about giving precise numbers for 
project spending. In 2002, a figure of four billion dollars was cited, later 
rising to 6.5 billion.

“Now that so much money has been put into it, there’s no going back, and 
construction work will be completed regardless of the cost,” said an anonymous 
staff member at Turkmenistan’s ministry for water resources.

Across the border in Uzbekistan, environmentalists in Khorezm region and the 
Karakalpakstan autonomous republic are looking on in horror. 

They are only too aware of the ecological catastrophe caused by the shrinking 
of the Aral Sea over recent decades, caused by over-use of the waters of the 
Amu Darya and Central Asia’s other great river, the Syr Darya. This was a 
direct result of intensive cotton production, a grand project of the Soviet 

An environmentalist from Karakalpakstan recalls the drought of 1999 and 2000, 
when the lower reaches of the Amu Darya all but disappeared – leaving residents 
of this part of Uzbekistan without water. 

“Every spring, I worry whether there’s going to be water in Karakalpakstan and 
Khorezm; whether the irrigation canals will fill, so that people can raise 
their livestock and get some kind of harvest,” she said.

She is in little doubt that the Turkmen reservoir will make things worse. 

“How can it be that a desert lake, where the water literally disappears into 
the sand, is more important than the lives of millions of people?” she asked. 
“This ‘Turkmen sea’ can only be filled by rivers of tears from the residents of 
Karakalpakstan and Khorezm. It will be the Sea of Tears and Woe.”

Another Uzbek environmentalist, working on the Aral Sea problem, said there 
were grave concerns that far from restricting themselves to drainage from their 
own territory, the Turkmen authorities were quietly drawing off extra water 
from the Amu Darya to fill the reservoir.

“We don’t trust the Turkmen,” he said. “Since independence [in 1991] they’ve 
been taking more than the agreed volumes of water out of the Amu Darya. “It 
would be possible to use satellite imagery to monitor the removal of fresh 
water from the Amu Darya via these collection canals. But no one is doing that. 

To the frustration of local ecological activists, the Uzbek authorities have 
not offered much opposition to their neighbour’s giant water project – in stark 
contrast to their vocal hostility to hydroelectric dam projects upstream in 
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

A scientist based in Karakalpakstan noted this contrast in behaviour, saying, 
“The Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan is playing along with the Turkmen, even 
conducting joint studies of water resources in the Amu Darya basin. I don’t 
know what all this is for. Our people are demanding an international ecological 
feasibility study of plans to build dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, yet 
Tashkent isn’t demanding the same thing for the Turkmen lake.” 

The environmentalist from Karakalpakstan added, “Uzbekistan depends on the 
waters of the Amu Darya… but it’s unable to interfere in the internal affairs 
of its neighbour and tell it what to do.”

She concluded, “I think that after so many years of misunderstanding. it is 
important that both countries finally sit down at the negotiating table, with 
other neighbours and international arbitrators also present, and solve this 
problem once and for all.”

(The names of interviewees in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been 
withheld out of concern for their security.)


More than half the population are already classed as poor, and things look set 
to get worse as incomes and job opportunities are squeezed.

By Sayrahmon Nazriev in Qurghonteppa and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe

As government figures confirm that the global economic downturn is having major 
effects on Tajikistan, experts warn that more and more households in Central 
Asia’s poorest country will be driven into poverty. 

Aside from collapsing production and exports, the decline in money sent home by 
migrants working abroad will deprive families of a key income source. 

Tajikistan’s statistical agency reports that the economy grew by 2.8 per cent 
year on year in the first six months of 2009, half the rate seen in the same 
period of 2008. Industrial production fell by 13 per cent, and export revenues 
were 48 per cent down, a reflection of low world prices and lack of demand for 
aluminium and cotton, Tajikistan’s key export commodities. 

Nuriddin Kayumov, director of Tajikistan’s Institute of Economic Studies, said 
that as of June, one-third of all industrial plants and factories across the 
country were at a standstill. 

“Many directors are complaining that they can’t sell their products and they 
are being forced to send their workers on unpaid leave,” he added. 

The slump has slashed tax revenues, so that even the modest expenditure levels 
the government envisages after scaling down its budget earlier this year may 
not be achievable. (See Faint Praise for Tajik Crisis Plan, RCA No. 575, 

Tajik president Imomali Rahmon warned as much on a visit to the southern 
Khatlon region last month, when he criticised the provincial government for its 
low tax collection rates and expressed concern that public-sector wages and 
pensions were not being paid on time. 

Delays on wages and pensions are already occurring, and appear to be worse in 
rural areas. 

“The state owes pensioners in our village two months in back-payments and when 
you get it, it’s only for one month,” said 75-year-old Zaynab from Bokhtar in 
southern Tajikistan. 

Zaynab said that even when she got her pension, worth around 13 US dollars a 
month, it was not enough to buy a sack of flour, just “a bit of flour and some 

Aside from conventional economic activities like agriculture and industry, one 
of Tajikistan’s main sources of income in recent years has been money 
remittances from the estimated 1.5 million migrants working abroad, mainly in 
Russia and also Kazakstan. 

These funds keep families afloat and contribute to economic growth – between 30 
and 50 per cent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product, according to various 
estimates – by paying for goods and services on the domestic market. 

Citing World Bank figures, the Tajik economy ministry reports that recorded 
remittances – that is, money transferred through the banks rather than being 
carried home in cash – stood at 525 million dollars in the period January-May, 
a 34 per cent drop on the same period of 2008. 

Sangchagul Jononova from Bokhtar district described how the income of her 
15-member family was slashed after two of her three sons returned from Russia 
after losing their jobs. She used to receive a total of 300 dollars from them, 
but the two now at home are earning much less – one gets 45 dollars a month 
working on a building site and the other far less than that as a farmhand. “We 
don’t have enough money for food, let alone clothes and shoes,” she told IWPR. 
“The new school year starts soon, and I don’t know how I’m going to send the 
children to school…. The only things we can afford now are bread and tea, 
sometimes with sugar.” 

Over the summer, Jononova has supplemented her family’s diet with fruit and 
vegetables from her garden, but this will end when winter comes. 

Like many returning migrants and their families, Jononova can only hope the 
crisis in Russia will end soon so her sons can go back there. (For more on this 
issue, see our recent report Tajikistan: No Jobs for Returning Migrants, RCA 
No. 583, 12-Jul-09.) 

Analysts warn that the multiple effects of the crisis – falling remittances, 
job losses at factories, and small business closures as consumers spend less – 
will inevitably force more and more people below the bread line, at a time when 
the government is struggling to pay wages and benefits. 

Prior to the crisis, the World Bank calculated that 54 per cent of Tajikistan’s 
population were living on less than two dollars a day, its benchmark figure for 
assessing poverty. 

Hojimahmad Umarov, a professor at the Institute for Economic Studies, says that 
figure has now risen to 60 per cent. Meanwhile, he says, 15 per cent of people 
in Tajikistan are living on less than one dollar a day. 

“These are families that cannot rely on members working abroad as labour 
migrants. Most of them live in Khatlon and in Badakhshan,” he said. 

Najiba Shirinbekova, who heads a non-government group called Law and 
Prosperity, notes that the north of Tajikistan, traditionally better off than 
other parts of the country, is also being hit. 

“The latest information indicates a particularly high level of poverty in the 
ostensibly wealthy, industrially developed Soghd region. This is because 
factories are standing idle because of the financial crisis and the winter 
energy crisis,” she said. 

Larisa, a 59-year-old resident of the capital Dushanbe, typifies the kind of 
people who still have jobs but have few other resources to prevent them sliding 
into poverty. 

Living on her own, she earns about 30 dollars a month – placing her in Umarov’s 
bottom 15 per cent. Her wage has to cover food, household utilities and travel 
to and from work. 

“I haven’t bought myself any clothes probably for three years. I’ve forgotten 
what meat, sausages, cheese and cream taste like. I buy small amounts on 
holidays, and sometimes neighbours invite me over for a meal,” she said. 

Although the inflation rate is lower this year than last, prices in the shops 
are still rising enough to cut into Larisa’s purchasing power. At her age, not 
in the best of health, she cannot take on a second job to top up her income. 

“If it gets very difficult, I will have to turn to my children for help and 
hope they won’t leave me to fend for myself,” said Larisa, whose children have 
emigrated to Russia. 

People further up the income rung, for example shopkeepers and market traders, 
are also seeing their earnings eaten away. 

Since most of their customers’ money was sent by relatives abroad rather than 
earned in Tajikistan, the decline in remittances has led to shops closing and a 
slowdown in trading at the traditional open-air bazaars. 

“People are trying to buy only the most essential items,” said a Dushanbe 
businessman who gave his first name as Aknazar. 

Selling foodstuffs wholesale to other parts in the country, Aknazar reckons he 
is turning over less than a third of what he would have been making before the 

“Previously, I was supplying beer and chicken to the Pamirs [Badakhshan 
region], but now some of my regular customers come only once every three 
months. The prices of many goods have increased including sugar and cooking oil 
and the same thing is happening to flour.” 

Mavzuna, who works in a women’s clothes store in Dushanbe’s Sadbarg shopping 
centre, said, “Trade has practically died out, we don’t know how to pay the 
rent, which the owners have increased.” Shop assistants like Mavzuna find 
themselves under increasing pressure to make money. 

“We are told to deliver 22 dollars’ worth of sales on a daily basis, but how 
can we achieve that? At the moment we aren’t reaching that sales target in the 
course of a week.” 

Sayrahmon Nazriev and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva are IWPR-trained journalists in 

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