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The Kara Kum Canal

The longest irrigation canal in the world, the construction of the Kara Kum Canal was a remarkable Soviet-era engineering feat, taking waters from the Amu Darya some 1, 100km westwards to Gazanjyk (now Bereket) in Balkan Region. From here, water is piped even further westwards, to Turkmenbashy on the Caspian, making a total length of 1,370km. A planned extension of the canal, from Bereket to Etrek in the far southwest of Turkmenistan, has however yet to materialise. Construction of the canal began in 1954. It had reached Ashgabat by 1962, and Bereket in 1981. It takes almost 13km3 of water annually from the Amu Darya, the largest single recipient of waters from that river. It supports close to a million hectares of irrigated cropland, and a much larger area of rangeland. The area served by the canal produces around half of the cotton and most of the grain output of Turkmenistan.

I was once shown a Soviet-era Book for Honoured Guests visiting the Kara Kum Canal named after V.I.Lenin. Most of the comments had been penned by visiting Communist Party delegations from around the globe. Those from the USA were particularly effusive, in an ideological kind of way. 'Dear Turkmenia Comrades. The Canal is a glowing example of proletarian internationalism and of the Leninist approach to the solution of the national question. We wish you many more victories on your road to building a Communist society.' That kind of thing. The canal is now named in honour of Saparmurat Turkmenbashy rather than Lenin. It also tends to be described not as a canal at all but as the Kara Kum River, as if it was a natural work, rather than an artificial one.

A series of large hydraulic structures, mostly around the Merv and Tejen oases, control the level and flow of the water and facilitate diversions for irrigation. There are three main reservoirs along the canal system: Zeid, in Lebap Region; Hanhowuz, at the eastern edge of the Tejen Oasis; and the Kopet Dag Reservoir near Geok Depe. The Zeid Reservoir acts as a large settlement tank, to attempt to cope with the heavy sediment load in the Amu Darya. But silting of the main canal remains a considerable problem. Inadequate central control and information systems hinder informed decision making. The state of maintenance of the Kara Kum Canal is a cause for concern, and water efficiency is poor.


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