The Karakum, or "black sand" desert covers 70 percent of the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. Population is sparse there, with only one person per 2.5 miles, and rain might come once in a decade. Underneath this austere territory lies the ancient city of Merv, near today's Mary, whose ruins are still studied by scholars around the world, as well as a great deal of oil and gas, making Turkmenistan's reserves the fifth largest in the world. Also under the shifting sands are the springs of water that feed oases where the Turkmen people have made their villages and struggled against the elements for centuries. The Karakum Canal, the largest irrigation system in the world, crosses the region, and the desert is also the site of an over-ambitious and controversial state project to create an artificial lake.
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