Turkmenistan Starts Building New Desert Sea: Glorious Deed or Disaster Waiting to Happen?

beached boats aral sea central asia photo

Stranded boats on the dried-up Aral Sea. Photo by giladr via Flickr.

The Aral Sea, Central Asia's most (in)famous body of water, has become a global symbol of environmental mismanagement. But at least one government in the region doesn't seem to have learned much from that eco-catastrophe: Last week, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan broke ground on the creation of a new inland sea, one that the BBC reports "will be filled with drainage water from the country's cotton fields." Sounds great already, right?Seemingly following in the grandiose footprints of the late President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, who commissioned a gold-plated, rotating statue of himself that always faces the sun in the country's capital, Berdymukhamedov said the start of the costly initiative had "brought new life to these once-lifeless sands. I am convinced that our great deeds will be recalled with glory."

Channeling water from cotton fields
The $20 billion project aims to channel runoff water from the country's cotton fields across the massive Karakum Desert to create the large Golden Age Lake. According to Berdymukhamedov, the move shows that "Turkmenistan is making huge efforts to contribute to common work on preserving nature and improving the environment" because the new body of water will attract migratory birds and other wildlife, create more arable land, and relieve water shortages. But not everyone is buying that argument.

"Environmentalists say a lot of the water will simply disappear into the desert's permeable soil," the BBC reports. "Large amounts, they say, will also evaporate in the high temperatures, leaving the soil extremely salty."

Aral Sea has shrunk by 90 percent
The Aral Sea tragedy itself was the result of a water-diversion project that redirected its two major feeder rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, to use to irrigate new cotton fields. The loss of water initiated a downward spiral of evaporation, increased pollution and salinity, and climate change, shrinking what was once the world's fourth-largest lake by 90 percent.

Critics of the new project fear that the runoff from those same cotton fields will not be sufficiently cleansed of the harmful insecticides and fertilizers that fueled decades of intensive agriculture. Though it is not part of any announced plan, they also worry that the beleaguered Amu Darya, on the border with Uzbekistan, will be tapped once again to help fill the lake, further fueling water conflicts between the two countries.

More on water scarcity:
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Cool Interactive Map Shows Water Stressed Areas Over Next 60 Years
Citing Environment, China Delays World's Longest Aqueduct Project
As Countries Over-Pump Aquifers, Falling Water Tables Mean Falling Harvests
EPA Report Looks at Managing Water Supplies in a Warming World

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