Turkmenistan is starting to think harder about water, and not before time.
On April 22, the Foreign Ministry hosted a conference under the title of “Management of Water Resources Amid Climate Change Conditions.”
The ministry’s account of the event offered a sparse summary about what was said. Namely, that regional transboundary water cooperation is essential to ensuring stability and prosperity, and that climate change is forcing the world to focus more urgently on how it uses water.
At first glance, these pronouncements appear obvious to the point of blandness, but they do in fact touch on a pair of very current and politically contentious matters.
One is how Afghanistan is making apparently fast progress building a canal to divert large volumes of water from the Amu Darya River, which Turkmenistan relies upon heavily to irrigate its crops.
Already as it is, Turkmenistan has been classified by the World Resources Institute, or WRI, a Washington-based research foundation, as one of 17 nations in the world facing “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. The WRI applies that term to countries “where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80 percent of their available supply on average every year.” The Food and Agriculture Organization assesses Turkmenistan’s water stress levels at almost 144 percent – in the former Soviet Union, only Uzbekistan does worse.
This point feeds into the other theme stressed at the Foreign Ministry conference, in which multiple speakers dwelled on the “rational use of water.”
Much could be written about the dubious merits of the Turkmen government insisting on perpetuating a thirsty industry like cotton farming and its chronic failure to invest effectively in improving systems for managing water resources. But perhaps a more helpful illustration of the skewwhiff logic by which the regime operates is how Turkmenistan in 2008 secured a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for having the “greatest number of fountain pools in a public place” in the capital, Ashgabat. The 27 fountains in question were said at the time to cover an area equivalent to almost 30 football fields. And sure enough, many of those fountains now often lie idle since there is not enough water to keep them running.
At times, it is nature itself that conspires against man. Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website, on April 20 published a detailed account of an incident in January, when abnormally cold weather caused an accumulation of ice jams on the Karakum Canal that then sent water rushing over the levee.
For more than 10 days, water gushed into the sands of the Karakum Desert, forming a channel almost 20 kilometers in length. In the workers’ panicked haste to dam the burst levee, one bulldozer plunged into the fast-flowing waters – a scene captured on camera and posted online.
Turkmenistan is at least showing some willingness to open up to international involvement in addressing what can confidently now be described as a permanent, full-blown crisis.
On April 20, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was in Ashgabat to inaugurate his country’s embassy. Israel has had a temporary mission in the Turkmen capital for a decade, but the opening of a permanent post is a strong indication of a mutual desire to consolidate ties.
One topic that came up when Cohen met with President Serdar Berdymukhamedov earlier in the day was how Israel might share its experiences in agriculture and water-saving techniques. Like Turkmenistan, Israel is particularly exposed to the vagaries of imminent climate change and has emerged as a global leader in developing techniques for mitigating impacts. The widespread reuse of wastewater and the development of desalination projects are two approaches Turkmenistan will be eager to imitate.
In other transnational cooperation news, the state-owned railway companies of Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan have agreed to form a joint venture called NS Express (short for North-South Express) to handle the transportation of goods along the eastern route of what is known as the International North-South Transport Corridor, or INSTC. This operator is poised for incorporation in the third quarter of this year, a spokesperson for Russian Railways Logistics, or RZD Logistics, told RIA Novosti news agency.
NS Express will not have its own rolling stock, but the sense of the joint venture is to make the route as seamless as possible and ease Russia’s pivot away from Europe toward trading with countries in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.
In a more geographically modest proposition, Turkmenistan is already making some progress in the construction of a free-trading zone on its border with Uzbekistan. Deputy Prime Batyr Atdayev, who is the government’s point-man on Uzbekistan affairs, said at a Cabinet meeting on April 22 that the first stage of construction of the facility is already happening. No details were forthcoming on when the trading zone might open, however.
On April 20, the new-look Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, had its first post-constitutional rejig meeting under the watchful eye of its chair, the former president and father of the current incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Following the various iterations of this institution has become exhausting.
In January 2021, it was decided, in deference to Berdymukhamedov the elder’s whims, that the Halk Maslahaty, once an occasional, colorful mass get-together of bureaucrats and community elders, should be transformed into an upper house of parliament, or Senate, with Berdymukhamedov himself occupying the speaker’s chair. Within two years, Berdymukhamedov decided he was bored with that idea and changed the legislature back to a single-chamber affair and revived the Halk Maslahaty as a would-be supra-parliamentary consultative body, also chaired by him in his new, bespoke capacity as National Leader.
The revised Halk Maslahaty is absent the fulsomely bearded elders of old and now consists only of Berdymukhamedov the elder droning endlessly at scraping lackeys hunched over their notebooks, lest they accidentally make eye contact with their leader.
One vaguely articulated takeaway from the Halk Maslahaty session is that it is in this body that ultimate power will reside.
“A cloak will not be short if it is sewn with advice,” as Berdymukhamedov told the room. The implication of this homespun wisdom and the rest of the National Leader’s speech is that no policy can be adopted until Berdymukhamedov the elder gives it the thumbs up. And this is no mere formality, as in some European presidential systems, like Germany and Italy. It is this older Berdymukhamedov, not his dull and uninspiring son, Serdar, who is in charge.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.