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Turkmenistan: Specialist Critical Of Reservoir Plan

Professor Gregory Gleason is an American academic who in the past has advised Turkmenistan on managing its water resources. Eight years ago, Gleason worked on a Turkmen project to build a reservoir to turn some of the country's vast amounts of arid land into arable soil. That plan was later scrapped, but Turkmen officials recently broke ground on an even larger plan to recover desert areas. Turkmenistan announced this month it will build a 3,500 square-kilometer reservoir in the Kara-Kum Desert at a cost of $4 to $6 billion. Officials say that when completed, the new reservoir will increase Turkmenistan's harvests 30 percent. President Saparmurat Niyazov says the project will take just 10 years to complete, although earlier projections budgeted at least 20 years. Some say the timetable has been pushed forward so the reservoir can be completed before Niyazov, who is 60, dies. Naz Nazar of the Turkmen Service spoke to Gleason this week to ask his opinion of the project, which some say could wreak irreversible havoc on the environment.

Prague, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Gleason was first asked about the concept of holding water in a reservoir and whether the plan, as it stands now, will actually increase the amount of water available to the country's farmers. He says that since much of the water to fill the reservoir will be drawn from fields, the actual net gain will be minimal:

"The idea of holding water in a reservoir is appealing. Unfortunately, the amount of water available to Turkmenistan by this scheme will not be increased nor will the efficiency with which available water is used for agricultural purposes."

Gleason said when the grandiose plan was conceived, he and other international specialists told Turkmen officials it was not feasible. He was then asked whether the vast sums being directed to the reservoir could be better spent in other ways. He identified several alternative projects which he says are more cost-effective:

"That might include lining irrigation canals, it might include leveling fields to assure that the irrigation water was used more efficiently, it might include drip irrigation systems for more efficient use of available water, it might include research and development efforts to engineer crops which are resistant to salinity and that have a higher threshold for dry conditions."

Gleason says one big obstacle to the reservoir may be securing financing to complete it. He says the project is not likely to be finished without money from international organizations. That assistance, he says, will not come easily and will force Turkmen officials to take the environment into consideration:

"It's unlikely that this planned 10-year development program will actually go forward to its conclusion without outside donor assistance. That outside assistance is not going to be manifested, it seems to me, until such studies or analyses are undertaken that make this data available to specialists in the outside world."

Gleason also spoke about the problem with water in Central Asia in general, noting that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently listed the region's main threats -- placing water resources and management after terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

He agrees water is one of the biggest problems facing the region. He says the issue is complicated by the division of Central Asia into five separate and autonomous states, separating upstream and downstream users in what he calls a "very unnatural" way.