Uzbekistan: Where the Amu Darya goes to die
A journey down the terminal stretch of a once-mighty river highlights how hard it will be to fend off environmental catastrophe.
225 miles upstream from the where the Aral Sea used to be: Water gurgles out of sprinklers, coaxing thick tufts of marigold and hibiscus from the loamy soil before pooling on the hot cement sidewalks.
This afternoon ritual playing out all around Urgench makes the city of 200,000 in the middle of Uzbekistan’s Khorezm oasis bloom well into autumn.
With water from the wide Amu Darya river, boys douse parking lots and tanker trucks drizzle highways to fight the dust. Cotton fields stretch to every horizon, fed by a labyrinth of irrigation canals choked with reeds.
Water may appear abundant. But it is a precious and dwindling resource still taken for granted despite proximity to one of humanity’s worst environmental disasters: the desiccation of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake. Ninety percent of the Aral has vanished since 1960. The sea used to moderate the climate, which is now hotter and drier; storms whip salt and chemicals into the air. Anemia, some cancers, and other health problems are more common.
While the sea is gone for good, the Amu Darya, one of two rivers that fed the Aral, is now dying too, stunting crops and impacting millions of people in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Behaviors must change, international donors plead, lest profligacy multiplied by climate change make western Uzbekistan uninhabitable. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts per capita water availability to fall 33 percent by mid-century as the population balloons. Last year the World Bank estimated that 2.4 million people across Central Asia – 3.4 percent of the region’s population – could be climate refugees by 2050.
The Amu Darya – known as the Oxus in antiquity – has supported agriculture in Khorezm for thousands of years. The edges of the plain are dotted with ancient fortresses to frustrate nomadic raiders and Silk Road bandits. Cotton was cultivated here long before Soviet central planners began monocropping after World War II, when they dug thousands of canals to refashion the landscape and produce cotton deep in the desert.
Yuldash Sarayev, 64, has been fishing along one of these – the Shavat Canal – for 40 years, luring carp and catfish with green grapes. There used to be more species, and more fish, he says, but many people turned to fishing for sustenance after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991: Men with rods line the Shavat in Urgench. “Meat is expensive. People need to eat,” he explains.
The canal is controlled by a government committee that decides which regions get water, and how much. Each September, when the cotton harvest begins, the committee redirects the flow into reservoirs. Even without that, there is far less water than there used to be: “The water is half where it was when I was a kid. Every year now there's less,” Sarayev says.
Today Uzbekistan’s economy depends on this “white gold”; from seed to textiles, the cotton industry employs about 30 percent of the workforce, according to the German development agency, GIZ.
Cotton is one of the world’s thirstiest crops, demanding, on average, three to six times as much water as rice.
The figure in Uzbekistan is likely higher. Decrepit canals leak as much as 37 percent of the water before it reaches the fields, according to research published by an Uzbek-German team this year. Most farmers use furrow irrigation, opening a sluice and flooding their fields when water is available. This raises the water table, sucking naturally occurring salts to the surface, crusting the fields with white and depressing yield. The groundwater is now full of pesticides, defoliants and other chemicals. Together, all this slices up to 8 percent off Uzbekistan’s GDP.
Though agriculture slurps up 90 percent of water in Uzbekistan, yields are low by any standard. Uzbekistan uses three times more water than Egypt to produce one unit of GDP, five times more than Kazakhstan, and 74 times more than Australia, according to Eurasianet calculations made with World Bank data.
The government in Tashkent, which long maintained Soviet-like central control over agriculture, is beginning to make changes. In 2020, it dropped the quotas that had forced farmers to grow cotton (and teachers and children to pick it) for generations and mandated that by 2030 half of farmland would use “water-saving technologies,” including drip irrigation (miles of hoses with tiny holes to feed water directly to plants) on 15 percent of irrigated land. Two years later, finding someone using these techniques is still difficult; the Agriculture Ministry couldn’t identify one farmer in Khorezm province (population 1.8 million) using drip irrigation. According to the FAO, the method is used on just 0.11 percent of land; most of the rest is watered with flooded furrows.
Among that 0.11 percent is the 100-hectare plot of Bektosh Madiyorov, who began using drip irrigation on a fifth of his land last year, taking advantage of government-subsidized credit and tax breaks.
For five years before he switched Madiyorov had not been receiving enough water at his farm, an hour from Urgench, where the Shavat Canal is more dirt than water. He is at the whim of officials upstream. “There used to be water in the canals all the time. Now water enters the canals every 15-20 days,” he says. Pumping groundwater isn’t an option because it is “too salty.”
“There are very few drip irrigation users around us. But seeing the low cost and good yield of the crop, farmers are showing interest,” Madiyorov says over a table heaving with plov and pickled tomatoes.
Financial incentives and technology alone appear unlikely to fix the shortages. With the water he saves, Madiyorov has built himself a small pond and stocked it with carp; scholars call this a “rebound effect” – a change in behavior that could offset the savings. Water use needs more concerted monitoring; few smallholders or farming cooperatives have meters, so authorities allocate water by hectarage. There is also the matter of the leaky canals supplying everyone, including drip-irrigation farmers: Most are unlined; water seeping into the ground is not just lost but hurts agriculture by contributing to the salination.
Outside Urgench, the Amu Darya is still a fast-flowing river with eddies and currents that would challenge a skilled swimmer. A half-mile beam bridge crosses grassy islands and a floodplain much wider than it was only a few years ago.
To the north, in a district of salt-streaked scrubland, workers are extending a canal to carry water to new fields yet further from the river. In the last 33 years, Uzbekistan’s irrigated cropland has expanded 43 percent; the population has doubled in the same period.
Farmers use furrow flooding to “wash” the salt off the soil, says Alim Asamatdinov, associate professor of chemistry at Nukus State Pedagogical Institute, but the water ultimately pulls more salt to the surface of the already “naturally salty” soil, creating a vicious circle wherein ever more water is needed. Eventually the water empties into a network of drainage canals that feed growing lakes, some too salty and polluted to support much life.
183 miles upstream from the where the Aral Sea used to be: A pontoon bridge spans the river, connecting villagers with a smattering of cement factories in the dusty hills above the northern bank. The bridge is maintained by the Matiyakubov family, which collects 1,000 sum (9 cents) for upkeep from each car that crosses. In the shade of a defunct police station, Rustam Yusupov, 51, a local elementary school teacher, estimates the water has fallen by about half since independence in the early 1990s, though it still takes a man in a skiff several minutes of vigorous rowing to cross.
On the rare occasion when the river still freezes, ice can push pieces of pontoon into piles, forcing the Matiyakubovs to pull the sections onto shore for safety.
The river starts 1,500 miles east of here, in the highlands of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Perversely, without climate change the situation in the lower Amu Darya could be worse: Warming temperatures are rapidly melting glaciers upstream, adding temporary volume to the river. As those glaciers disappear this century for good, the water level will fall; some scenarios estimate glacial runoff in Central Asia will peak this decade. The warming climate – temperatures in Central Asia have risen at twice the global average since the 1950s – is also contributing to more frequent droughts, while hotter weather requires farmers to irrigate more often.
129 miles: In Nukus, capital of the semi-autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic, the Amu Darya is unrecognizable, more a field of sand dunes than a river. Look closely and there are some sun-bleached shells; one could wade across the remaining stream. As in Urgench, here a large portion of the water has been diverted through the center of town, the canal’s banks a place for teenagers to jog and flirt.
This used to be the start of the Amu Darya delta. The FAO estimates 95 percent of the land in Karakalpakstan is now saline.
Water’s impact on politics can be hard to pin down here, but some have argued that the unrest that killed at least 18 in Nukus this summer, after Tashkent tried to revoke Karakalpakstan’s theoretical right to secession, flowed from longstanding grievances over the environment and local impressions that the region, one of Uzbekistan’s poorest, is not getting its fair share of water.
“People here think this is a kind of political thing, that Khorezm [province upstream] controls the water and that is why we have less,” says a local civil servant, echoing a subject of grumbling raised frequent but cautiously.
107 miles: Saparbai Baijanov, an alfalfa farmer on 70 hectares inside an oxbow in the Amu Darya, blames neighboring Turkmenistan – three or four miles as the crow flies – for the worsening shortages since he moved from Nukus in 2015. “Water is now very scarce,” he says, calling this year the worst yet. “Some people have lost their crops because there’s not enough water. They say our water is diverted to Turkmenistan.”
Water sharing aggravates relations up and down the Amu Darya. Tajikistan is erecting the world’s tallest dam on one of the tributaries – and fighting with Kyrgyzstan over water access elsewhere. Turkmenistan is one of the only countries that uses more water than Uzbekistan per unit of GDP, and still it has a food crisis. Aged canals divert water hundreds of miles across Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert to farms in the south.
Coordination is ad hoc and ineffective, Dinara Ziganshina, an Uzbek scholar who belongs to an interstate water-sharing commission, wrote earlier this year. The commission, set up 30 years ago to ensure rational water use in the Aral Sea basin, struggles to function, focusing on “short-term solutions” that are “responsive, rather than preventive,” and giving short shrift to “environmental considerations.”
53 miles: One place facing the consequences is the village of Aliaul, a few dozen houses surrounding a two-story school building. Where the river used to flow, there’s a knee-deep ditch lined by saxaul bushes teeming with magpies.
Kurbangul Makhambetova, 65, a former kindergarten teacher, remembers a flood in 1992 that forced the villagers from their homes. Back then “there was a lot of water in the river.”
Now there is less every year.
Makhambetova also has fewer places to graze her cows because there is less grass.
12 miles: In the early 1980s, with the Aral Sea beating a brisk retreat, Soviet engineers built earthworks at Porlatau to manage the remaining water. For about a decade, the Kok-Su (Green Water) reservoir was used as a carp farm, but it closed in the 1990s with the water low and cormorants decimating the stocks. Today a few men fish with nets. Villagers say the fish are too small to sell.
Beyond the earthworks, in the former riverbed, orange puddles ooze to the surface. Salt crystals crunch underfoot. Nothing grows.
At the edge of Kok-Su, a sluice regulates a trickle of water: the last drops of the Amu Darya. Soon the canals are bare. After watering millions of hectares for over 1,000 miles through countless canals and reservoirs, the Amu Darya is dead.
0 miles: Aral Kum means Aral Sands. Maps are beginning to reflect the reality. The Aral is no longer a sea.
Muynak is at the edge of this new desert. In 1959, the port town produced 21.5 million cans of fish: bream, barbel, pike perch. Now a fleet of rusty ships, hulls looted, sits at the bottom of the erstwhile harbor. Since the 1960s, the population has fallen by almost half.
In the last few years, the government in Tashkent has taken an interest in this struggling town of 13,000, building a new pipeline to supply drinking water, installing new roads and high-speed internet, reopening the airport to occasional flights.
Oil and gas companies have made promising finds in the former seabed and there is hope that a jobs boom is around the corner.
At the Muynak history museum, deputy director Makhmud Aitjanov says residents are no longer as eager to leave as they were in the early 2000s. The economy is better now, even though the ongoing drought is among the worst in memory. Locals believe the government will help wean farmers off their water addiction: “Most farmers in Karakalpakstan saw their crops die in the last two years. Now the government has some new projects, not this year but next year, to reduce cotton fields and wheat and rice and grow some vegetables that take less water.”
But can Tashkent change the behavior of thousands of smallholders?
The government’s plan rests on subsidies and reduced central control: Farmers now have more choice about what they grow; they can access credit to modernize their irrigation equipment. Yet there is little incentive not to use every drop of water in the nearest canal, especially as irrigated land continues to expand rapidly nationwide.
Uzbek authorities seem to hope that people will do “the right thing” in a struggle akin to the one playing out globally: between present and future, the self and the collective. Around the world, people are weighing individual benefits against the vague existential risks of climate change. What’s being asked of farmers on the Amu Darya – to change their behavior to benefit the whole region, potentially at a personal cost to themselves – is not so different from the dilemmas confronting cattle herders felling trees in the Amazon or miners in a West Virginia coal shaft.
Yet like everywhere, climate change will hit the poorest hardest – the farmers who cannot afford drip irrigation, the herders without access to grass, not the suburban Americans contemplating less shopping online. And still, without changes on a massive scale, in the lower Amu Darya basin even those who do their best to save water may not see the promised returns.
As for the banked-on jobs boom, gas has been extracted near Muynak since the late 2000s, but still Uzbekistan faces such chronic shortages that it is negotiating to import gas from Turkmenistan.
Meanwhile, the desert encroaches. Even two years ago there were small lakes – pools left by the retreating sea – on both sides of Muynak where locals would fish. Now they are gone. Instead, where Google Earth shows the Rybachiy Zaliv (Fisherman’s Gulf), there is a rowboat stuck in mud, a Coke-bottle bail still sitting in the stern. There is no agriculture. A few cows and goats munch on camelthorn.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.
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