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Turkmenistan: In The North, Residents Thirst For Clean Drinking Water

Thousands of rural people in Turkmenistan's northern province of Dashoguz lack access to clean drinking water. When potable reserves are particularly low, the population resorts to drinking highly salinated water -- and the serious health complications that come with it.

Prague, 28 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In an annual address marking Turkmenistan's Water Day earlier this month, President Saparmurat Niyazov called on citizens to protect water resources as a national treasure.

The call comes in a country that is 80 percent desert. Decades of intensive cotton farming have drained freshwater reserves and caused the salinization of the Amudarya River, which provided drinking water for Dashoguz Province.

Arslan Berdiyev is a project officer of the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. He says consumption of the high-saline water in Dashoguz has put the health of the local population at risk.

"The root cause of [the salinization of the Amudarya] is the discharge of drainage water both from Turkmen and Uzbekistan's territories. [Salinated] water from the Amudarya River affects the health of the people both in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan."

Drinking salinated water can result in kidney stones and other ailments, a result of the salts that over time build up in human tissue. Berdiyev says only about 20 percent of the 1.2 million people living in Dashoguz Province have access to clean drinking water.

According to some estimates, up to 40 percent of the population living in the Aral Sea region suffers from kidney problems.

The area includes Dashoguz, Uzbekistan's Khorezm Province and the Karakalpakstan Republic. It also extends to Kazakhstan's Kzyl-Orda and South Aral provinces, which suffer from the growing salinization of Central Asia's second key freshwater resource, the Syrdarya River.

Aleksandr Dodonov, Turkmenistan's former minister for water issues, acknowledges that salinization is a growing problem.

"The lack of normal drinking water influences immensely the health of the people in the Dashoguz region. It causes infectious diseases like hepatitis and [allows] its spread. There are no clear statistics about the spread of this disease. But there is no doubt about its existence."

One way to purge the Amudarya eventually of drainage and salt is to evaporate water from the drainage network in confined areas, rather than allowing the contaminants to enter the river and contaminate freshwater. Currently, an estimated 40 percent of drainage water in the Amudarya River basin returns to the river network, making the water more and more saline.

Mahmood ul-Hassan works at the Central Asian office of the nonprofit International Water Management Institute in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

"[Turkmenistan's] ground water is naturally saline," he said. "So you don't have any alternative unless you desalinize it. Or you can have access to [the Amudarya River's] water, which is already saline because upstream countries discharge their drainage effluent into river systems. So this water becomes successively more saline as it goes towards lower areas. And unfortunately, Turkmenistan is located much downstream."

Turkmen state standards consider water saline when one liter contains more than one gram of salt. According to Berdiyev, salinity can reach 1.6 grams per liter in the Amudarya during dry periods.

The UNICEF officer says clean drinking water can best be provided by establishing a centralized supply system where water can be treated, filtered, and chlorinated before being supplied to the local population.

"The government can develop a special action plan for the Dashoguz [Province] and provide the population with safe water through the construction of new piped water supply systems with desalinization [systems], not a simple water treatment [system]," he said.

But Hassan of the International Water Management Institute notes that such programs require huge investments -- something Turkmenistan can hardly afford.

"As far as Turkmenistan is concerned, if it receives saline water, what can it do? [Meeting] required standards [for drinking water] is quite expensive," he said. "The cost is something like 45 cents per cubic meter. The cost of desalinizing water is huge."

Hassan says the entire region would best be served by setting up an integrated water-management system that would create a unified effort to treat water as the precious resource it has become.

To that end, an Interstate Coordinating Water Commission was established over a decade ago, in 1992. But so far the Central Asian republics have failed to reach consensus on a region-wide system for managing their water resources.

(Turkmen Service Director Naz Nazar contributed to this report.)