Turkmen leaders are determined to revive life in the country’s barren sands with a grandiose water project. The government is pumping run-off water from irrigated cotton fields and is channeling it across hundreds of miles to create a lake in the Karakum Desert that might turn the parched land into blooming flora and entice fauna, Associated Press reported Thursday.
Engineers are flooding the Karashor depression in northern Turkmenistan through an extensive network of tributary canals to create the Golden Age Lake with a projected surface area of about 2,000 square kilometers. Filling the lake would require hundreds of billions cubic meters of water, about $4.5 billion of investment and up to 15 years to complete.
“We have brought new life to these once-lifeless sands. I am convinced that our great deeds will be recalled with glory,” Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov said, according to the state-run Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper.
The plan follows the long and haunting legacy of ambitious and eccentric engineering projects during Soviet times and under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, prompting many to doubt its environmental merits.
While the government says that the Golden Age Lake will revive desert life, promote responsible water use and relieve chronic water shortages in the Central Asian country, some observers fear it could create an environmental catastrophe, especially if it pumped water from the heavily-exploited Amu Darya River. The official design does not envision this option at this point.
The river, which runs along the border with Uzbekistan, is choked by hydropower plants and irrigation canals. The reduced flow has already flamed up transboundary water tensions among upstream and downstream countries in Central Asia and could cause additional diplomatic and environmental problems.
Critics also say that the run-off water from the cotton fields contains harmful insecticides and fertilizers — the legacy of decades of intensive cotton agriculture. In addition, some experts expect that water will evaporate too quickly in the heat or disappear into the desert’s soil.