Zoï’s Fantastic Central Asia Water Map, and Turkmenistan’s Geo-Engineering Projects

Aral Sea Water MapThe Geneva-based Zoï Environment Network has created some detailed and well-designed environmental maps. Available through flickr photostream along with many other images, the maps are not very well catalogued. Regardless of such organizational problems, the site is well worth exploring. The map that I have posted here, moreover, is the best presentation of the Central Asia’s water crisis that I have seen.

Note on the map how the Amu Darya no longer reaches the Aral Sea, which as a result has largely turned into a dry salt-flat. As can be seen as well, the much-diminished Syr Darya still does reach the Northern Aral Sea. Kazakhstan has recently built a series of dikes to keep water from flowing out of this restricted northern lake onto the dry southern lake-bed, thereby keeping the water level high enough and the salt content low enough to allow fish to survive and indeed to thrive. The so-called Aral Sea is thus not entirely dead, although the vast bulk of it is.

Other interesting developments are also evident on the map. Note, for example, the label “Golden Age Lake (under construction)” in northern Turkmenistan.

According to the Wikipedia:

Golden Age Lake known as Altyn Asyr locally, is the name of a man made lake under construction in the Kara Kum Desert of Turkmenistan.  Upon completion, the lake will span 770 square miles (2,000 km2) with a maximum depth of 230 feet (70 m), and hold more than 130 cubic kilometers (4600 billion cubic feet) of water. Filling the lake could take 15 years and cost up to $4.5 billion. According to government plans, it is intended to be filled by a 2,650-kilometer (1,650 mi) network of tributary canals.

However critics 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. It is also feared that Turkmenistan may seek to siphon water from the Amu Darya river, which runs along the country’s northern border with Uzbekistan. That could trigger a dispute between the two countries and inflict further damage of the environment.

Although Turkmenistan claims that the lake will provide wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits, any such gains will likely be short-lived. This “lake” is perhaps most accurately described as a waste-water sump. Irrigated lands in desert environments must be over-watered and then drained in order to prevent the accumulation of salt in the soil. The resulting drainage sumps can initially provide fine wildlife habitat, but the salt content will gradually increase, eventually eliminating most life. California’s Salton Sea is a prime example of such a process. Tellingly, The Guardian referred to the construction of Turkmenistan’s Golden Age Lake as “a logic-defying feat that might have appealed to Stalin.”

Note also that some of the drainage water from the agricultural lands of the lower Any Darya Valley ends up in Sarygamysh, a large, undrained lake that fluctuates significantly in area. Last summer, Turkmenistan announced another quixotic project in this area. As reported by TerraDaily:

Turkmenistan is allocating tens of millions of dollars to plant trees in a region neighbouring the stricken Aral Sea, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan said Tuesday. “A project has been developed to target environmental problems in the Aral Sea zone, which entails planting greenery over 20,000 hectares on the eastern bank of the Sarygamysh lake,” the newspaper said.

Considering the harsh environmental circumstances in the area, it is questionable whether this artificial forest will survive.  Unfortunately, information on the project, and on the lake more generally, is difficult to find.