Sun, 13 Jun 2021

Turkmenistan: Pump up the water

11 May 2021, 22:49 GMT+10

To judge by the number of needless fountains Turkmenistan has built over the years, one would be hard-pressed to realize that water comes at a premium in this desert nation.

So it looked uncharacteristically pragmatic of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov this week when he devoted so much attention to shortages of this critical commodity.

On May 4, he visited a water-pumping station in the Kaakha district of the Ahal province to make his point. He traveled there by helicopter, even though the location in question is only a 90-minute drive from the capital, Ashgabat. This facility ticks more than one box of ongoing concern.

First, the whole irrigation system is owned by a consortium of four local enterprises. This means it is ostensibly run as a private and for-profit operation, a detail in keeping with the government's stated desire to transition to market economics. The joint stock company, Miwe, says it plans to grow large volumes of walnuts, almonds, apples, pears, dates and even bananas. This last crop will be grown in greenhouses.

The technical specifications of this project deserve some attention since they are indicative of the kind of profligacy an energy-rich country like Turkmenistan can afford. For now. Water is pulled out of the Karakum Canal by six 400-kilowatt pumps and then fed into a 27.5-kilometer network of pipes. Water is pushed along the system by a further two pumping stations and is ultimately emptied out into a 70,000 cubic meter reservoir sitting at a site 60 meters above the canal. The amount of power required to keep this all ticking over would be mostly inconceivable in countries with more punishing electricity tariffs.

Even then, how companies like Miwe are supposed to fare selling bananas cultivated in this technologically cumbersome fashion should they ever be put in a position to compete on even roughly equitable terms with companies importing the fruit from nations where the crop grows endemically is anybody's guess. This is not an abstract consideration. Turkmenistan has long eyed accession to the World Trade Organization, after all. Champions of the import-substitution model rarely think too far ahead, however.

Optimizing the productivity of crop cultivation in this manner addresses another cluster of regularly mentioned strategic objectives. Namely, promoting import-substitution, ensuring food abundance and creating export potential.

Returning to the theme of optimal water usage, Dovran Khudaiberdyev, the chairman of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or UIET, the parastatal entity charged by Berdymukhamedov with willing a modern market economy into existence, said pumping infrastructure like that built by Miwe will help trim waste by between 35 and 50 percent. Water could be pumped to locations as high as 150 meters above the level of the Karakum Canal, Khudaiberdyev said.

The UIET elaborated on Miwe's ambitions in a follow-up statement on May 5, stating that the company had plans for more water-capturing infrastructure that would have the threefold benefit of preventing mudslides by capturing excess flow descending from the Kopet Dag mountain range, providing more irrigation for farmers and reducing reliance on other sources, such as the Amu Darya River.

"This is a unique project without analogues," the business lobby group said.

Will any of this be enough to mitigate crises this year, though? Even Berdymukhamedov was compelled to sound a gloomy note at a May 7 Cabinet meeting, observing that a shortage of water is expected this year because of disappointing rainfall seen in the spring.

Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website that has of late taken unusual levels of interest in Turkmen affairs, laid out the stakes in more alarmist terms. The drought in Turkmenistan this year, the website warned, may be stronger than even the one seen in 2018.

"Signs of drought were already observable since the end of 2020 in certain regions of the country. In January-February, it became possible to speak about the prospect of drought with a high degree of certainty," the website remarked.

Not that this tempered plans for growing vast volumes of cotton - a thirsty cash crop that is not remunerative for the farmers growing it and that does not have the redeeming quality of being edible. Turkmenistan harvested 1.25 million tons of cotton from across 6,200 square kilometers of fields in 2020, and Berdymukhamedov in January ordered the same feat be performed this year.

As is often the case, Amsterdam-based website has this week relayed some of the most distressing fresh evidence of how a food crisis continues to grip the country. One source in the city of Turkmenabat told the story of an eight-year-old girl who fainted and needed urgent medical attention while waiting in line at a state store. A brawl broke out at the same store a day earlier in a disagreement over access to rations. Police manage to cow citizens in most places, but it seems like even law enforcement officers are struggling to contain scenes of unrest in places like Ashgabat.

Another gripe aired by Berdymukhamedov this week had to do with the construction business. In an implied rebuke, he offered the sector a score of "fair" for work done in the first four months of this year. More investment is needed, he said.

Whose investment exactly? Money is usually just shoveled at construction by the state, but the president seems to want this approach to tail off.

As for foreign investment, outside the energy industry there is little of that to be had. Senior Iran energy sector officials met with the Turkmen ambassador in Tehran last week to discuss some kind of tie-up to explore resources in the Caspian Sea. This did not go much beyond speculative jaw-jawing, however.

It is left to the Pollyannas at the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, meanwhile, to speak in unfeasibly optimistic terms about exotic notions like the creation of a Business Ombudsman role in Turkmenistan.

"In line with the government of Turkmenistan's intention to strengthen the country's private sector, establishment of the Business Ombudsman is a positive step to resolve labor disputes while upholding international human rights standards in the country," the embassy said in a May 4 statement about a remote, three-way USAID-UN-Turkmen government discussion on the topic.

Pakistan, of all countries, speaks in more usefully candid terms. During a virtual meeting of trade negotiators from the two countries last week, Islamabad's representative bemoaned the hurdles hampering trade, Pakistan's Daily Times reported. This has constrained bilateral trade to well below its real potential, the newspaper quoted the official as saying.

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