THE RIVER THAT TRANSFORMED THE KARAKUM DESERT
(End. Continued from the previous issue)
When the Amu Darya waters reached the capital city of the country, the total length of the canal was already 800 kilometers. The Turkmens’ centuries-old dream came true. Born by human mind and labor of people, this artificial river in the desert has been called the Karakum River ever since then. The Turkmens had a saying: “The Amu Darya will sooner turn back than gardens in the desert will turn green,” but the irrigation-bypass canal proved otherwise. The “River of Happiness” presented the inhabitants of the surrounding lands with the opportunity to plant trees in the desert, sow cotton and irrigate many new distant pastures.
The construction of the waterway continued against the background of the high-pace of development of land in the river zone. It is now populated by over 50 cities and urban-type settlements in which more than half of the total population of the country lives. There is now a wide and still growing strip of “desert-eating” oases, stretching along the bed of the Karakum River. Roads, canals, power supply lines, water conduits spring and go deep into the desert from there. Many settlements, oil and gas fields have grown in the central regions of the desert.
One can now see oases with flowering gardens, vegetable farms and blue lakes among the hot loose sands in the center of the Karakum desert. One of these oases was born along the route of the main water pipeline Ashgabat – Yerbent. There were built a water treatment plant and a water pipeline to supply high-quality drinking water to the oasis residents. Shepherds – natural inhabitants of the desert – could only dream of such life in the past.
There is even live fish in the depths of the desert. The canal builders launched young herbivorous grass carp and silver carp into the newly commissioned water reservoirs. This made it possible to save water from swamping and becoming overgrown with reeds and algae. Dozens of comfortable settlements, thousands of kilometers of the collector-drainage network, dozens of schools, kindergartens, hundreds of thousands of square meters of housing were built in the virgin lands in the area of the Karakum River.
Work continued on the broadening and deepening of the Karakum River along the entire length of the canal, and the dams of the Khauzkhan reservoir were built up. On 5 November 1967, the Amu Darya arrived in the city of Geok-tepe, and the construction of the Kopetdag reservoir of seasonal regulation began. One had to carry out 25 million cubic meters of earthworks, build 15 kilometers of a 25-meter high dam and a water outlet regulator.
The Zeid reservoir (now 15 Years of Independence) became a real water accumulator. It is there that several million tons of silt are deposited annually. The fact is that the Amu Darya river, beginning in the glaciers of the Hindu Kush at an altitude of 5,000 meters, flows for more than 1,000 kilometers through mountain gorges and passes. Throughout the remaining length (more than one and a half thousand kilometers), the river bed is composed of light soils and characterized by high turbidity of the flow. In terms of sediment saturation, the Amu Darya is 2–3 times higher than the Nile river, which is known for its turbidity. In this regard, about half of the canal’s flow is directed to the reservoir to filter as much silt as possible. This is the optimal and most cost-effective way of feeding the canal.
The advance of the Amu Darya water to the west continued, and it came to the lands of Balkan province. This is the most water-short area of all the regions of Turkmenistan. It should be noted that the project of the fourth stage of the river developed by Turkmengiprovodkhoz Institute incorporated all the experience of the previous stages. In December 1978, the 100th anniversary of the city of Kizylarvat (now Serdar) was celebrated, and the city was presented with a great gift. On December 25, water came to the city.
The further development of the irrigation system continued in accordance with the General Plan of Development of the Karakum River. Its total length by that time was 1100 kilometers. Work on development of new lands was completed almost in full as per the project. The artificial river now irrigated over one million hectares of land. All fine-staple cotton is grown in this area. It is estimated that its production increased 16 times following the arrival of the river. The construction of the canal fully paid off and brought considerable profits to the country. In 1983, the construction of the water conduit Bereket – Balkanabat with a treatment plant for 100 thousand cubic meters per day was completed. Amu Darya water was supplied to the present-day cities of Balkanabat, Turkmenbashi and nearby settlements.
A turquoise wave with crests of foam, breaking out of the lock, instantly calms down in the wide bed of the Karakum River. There, at the exit from the Kopetdag reservoir, the man-made river looks especially beautiful. Beginning its journey from the distant glaciers of the Hindu Kush and having got rid of the Amu Darya silt and sand, the water acquires an amazing color and transparency. Earth-moving equipment has been recently used on the banks of the river. The canal has been deepened and broadened, and this makes the west-heading water surface of the river look especially impressive.
From the Amu Darya, which begins from the distant glaciers of the Pamirs, the Karakum River annually receives about 11 billion cubic meters of life-giving water with 50–55 million cubic meters of sand and silt, some of which settles in the reservoirs and riverbed. So, earthmoving equipment is constantly operated on the river banks, during construction of high-quality dams, broadening and deepening of the river in sandy soils and other places for improvement of its banks.
It is more than sixty years now that the 1,100-kilometer waterway with regulating facilities, reservoirs and its own production base has been the world’s largest irrigation system that supplies water to about one million hectares of the country’s agricultural land. Work never stops along the waterway to increase the throughput capacity of the man-made canal that has been the main hydraulic structure of the country for more than half a century now.
Another reservoir with the capacity of 18 million cubic meters of water has been recently built at the end of the river near the city of Bereket. The commissioning of a new water management complex with the throughput capacity of 10 cubic meters of water per second will help improve the reliability of water supply for irrigation of arable land in Bereket district.
Scientists believe that with the further development of the Karakum River system one has to take into account the growing demand for water by the growing population and development of the economy of the regions through which it flows, as well as possible climatic and transboundary threats. According to the Uzbek scientists, the flow of the Amu Darya River may be reduced by fifteen percent due to the global climate change. In addition, given the transboundary nature of the river, neighboring states may increase water intake. Along with this, it is expected that these states will build new large reservoirs that will result in changing the hydrological regime of the river. Confronted by such threats, Turkmenistan needs to build new reservoirs. In particular, Turkmenistan needs to start building a new reservoir with the capacity of 4 cubic kilometers and the second stage of the reservoir with the capacity of 1.65 cubic kilometers at 15 Years of Independence reservoir in the head part of the Karakum River. The implementation of these water management projects will make it possible to largely compensate for emerging climatic and transboundary threats. In order to increase the stability of the Karakum River, it is necessary to build a new water intake facility with the capacity of 600 cubic meters per second in its “head part” and increase cleaning of the Karakum River bed to the design parameters.
Work on the efficient use of the waterway continues along the entire length of the canal. For example, in the area of the city of Serdar, construction is underway to regulate the water level in the river with the throughput of 68.2 cubic meters per second. It is designed to ensure a stable water supply for the city and the agricultural region. A new hydraulic structure with a shipping lock with the capacity of 500 cubic meters per second is to be built near the village of Zakhmet (Bayramali district).
Another blocking and regulating water level device with a high throughput is to be erected in the area of the Khauzkhan reservoir. Thus, the entire system of new and old engineering structures that serve to use the available water resources of the river will make it possible to manage the flow of the Karakum River more effectively. There will be built new facilities for the passage of mudflows and drainage waters at 680th and 753rd kilometers of the riverbed to ensure the safe operation of the water artery. In addition, work is under way to redirect the water flow in the Zakhmet area to a new road and railway bridge to ensure safe navigation of barges, motor ships and dredgers on the river.
Construction units continue increasing the height of the dams on the largest man-made lakes on the man-made river – 15 Years of Independence and Khauzkhan – to increase the storage capacity of the reservoirs to 3.85 billion and 1.5 billion cubic meters respectively. This will ensure a uniform supply of water for drinking, industrial and agricultural needs of independent Turkmenistan. At present, the total water reserve in all four reservoirs – 15 Years of Independence, Khauzkhan, Kopetdag and Altyn kel – is 3.5 billion cubic meters.
This unique water system is operated by the Garagumder'yasuwhojalyk Association – one of the divisions of the Committee of Water Resources of Turkmenistan. This association serves the entire section of the Karakum River, from the head water intake to 1100th km, including hydraulic facilities, reservoirs, residential and industrial buildings and inspection roads along the river route.
The specialists of the association – hydraulic engineers, hydrometer engineers, regulators – keep records of the passage of water, solve issues relating to water intake and passage of water along the riverbed, its supply to water users, ensure the operation of pumping stations, cleaning, deepening and broadening the riverbed, timely filling the reservoirs, achieving uninterrupted supply of Amu Darya water for irrigation of crop areas. In 2020 alone, irrigators removed more than 24 million cubic meters of silt with the help of dredgers and excavators. The research and production center “Ecology” of the Association annually breeds and releases many tons of young herbivorous fish to ensure the biological cleaning of river banks and reservoirs from slit.
The man-made river adopted a new look thanks to modern bridges and road junctions crossing the canal that spared it a number of pontoon crossings and will soon make the river navigable to Ashgabat. All this perfectly describes the reverent and especially respectful attitude of the country to one of its main wealth – water and the waterway that transformed the Karakum desert. Competent, rational use of this huge water potential will allow cotton, grain and vegetable growers to grow rich crops, strengthening food independence of the country.