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Central Asia, Irrigation Development in

Encompassing more than two million square kilometers, the Aral Sea basin lies in the heart of Central Asia. Seven nations have territory within the basin: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The first five are former republics of the Soviet Union that gained independence in 1991. Two rivers (Amu Darya and Syr Darya), flowing from the high Pamir and Tian-Shan mountains on the southeast and east across the deserts to the Aral Sea, are the key water resources of the basin.

Pre-Soviet Period (Bronze Age to Twentieth Century)

Irrigation was the driving force of settlement and civilization in the Aral Sea region in antiquity. By the Bronze Age (second millennium, BCE) farmers practiced irrigation in the oases along the middle and lower course of the Amu Darya. The total area with irrigation systems in the Aral Sea basin was huge, perhaps covering 3.5 to 3.8 million hectares, slightly less than half the contemporary irrigated area. The first evidence of irrigation on the lower Syr Darya dates to the middle first millennium, BCE—a thousand years later than on the Amu Darya.

The Mongol invasion of Central Asia in 1220 led to the nearly complete destruction of irrigation systems along both rivers. The Amu Darya was purposely sent westward to the Sarykamysh Depression depriving the lower delta and Aral Sea of flow. Subsequently, irrigation facilities were slowly rebuilt and the Amu Darya restored to its former course. By the early nineteenth century the irrigated area was around 2 million hectares, less than it had been prior to the Mongol invasion (Table 1).

The Russian Empire between 1860 and 1900 brought Central Asia, including the Aral Sea basin, under its control. The region was known as Russian Turkestan or just Turkestan. A major expansion of irrigation began around 1900. By 1913 the irrigated area reached 3.2 million hectares. The newly irrigated lands permitted expansion of cotton sowing to meet the needs of the growing textile industry in Russia. Irrigation expansion in the early part of the twentieth century mainly occurred in the alluvial fans where rivers exited the mountains and downstream in the river valleys and deltas. This allowed development of the most fertile parts of the piedmont plain and dry sections of river deltas using gravity diversions that did not require building complicated head-works facilities. In the drier parts of the Amu Darya delta, farmers used a system of deepened earthen canals with wheels powered by humans or animals to lift the water to the fields.

Soviet Period (1922–1991)

The traditional system of irrigated agriculture in the Aral Sea basin was essentially preserved until the mid-1920s. This system, developed over thousands of years, had survived wars, social collapse, natural catastrophes, and the tsarist conquest of the region. Around 90 percent of the irrigated area consisted of small, individually managed farms of 2 to 3 hectares. Extended families typically operated these. The farms were divided into irrigated fields of 0.3 to 0.8 hectares with permanent low berms lined with trees surrounding each of them. Farmers used primitive irrigation technologies based on hand labor supplemented by draft animals. Animal wastes were used as fertilizer. Irrigation systems were not built according to any overall plan and they lacked control structures and drainage canals to convey saline runoff from fields.

We might expect such systems to be unsustainable as a result of rapid water logging, soil salinization, and falling crop yields. But they weren’t. The principles of irrigated farming developed by trial and error over the centuries were sound. The small size of the flooded fields ensured even distribution of the water, and the low berms that surrounded these sectors acted to absorb and accumulate salt, preventing soil salinization. The trees planted along the berms transpired excess water and thereby acted to control waterlogging as well as lowering wind speeds over the fields, which reduced evaporative losses from the soil. The trees also served as a fuel source.

The basic principle of the administrative-control system for irrigation was central government control of water management but local responsibility for operation and maintenance of the water management system. Sharia law saw water as social property and did not allow private ownership of it. Local authorities assigned water use rights to farmers and tightly controlled the maintenance of irrigation facilities for distributing water to them. Higher levels of government made sure that local officials fulfilled their responsibilities and handled disputes between regions. This traditional system of irrigated agriculture was adjusted to the environmental constraints of an arid climate and provided strong incentives for farming families to cooperate in the maintenance of irrigation systems as well as to use both land and water wisely.

The Soviets could have kept the best aspects of this system while carefully and judiciously introducing more modern technology, where appropriate, and pursuing a program of reform and redistribution to provide land to the landless peasantry. Instead, they chose to institute historically unprecedented changes in irrigated agriculture that radically and permanently changed the face of agriculture and peasant life.

Massive collectivization of agriculture began in the Aral Sea basin in 1929. Soviet authorities forced individual farms to combine into collective farms, while state farms were established on newly irrigated land. Farmers’ use of distinct portions of land was abolished and people were organized into teams that worked the land in common. The main goal was to reach “cotton independence.” Cotton plantings within a few years grew to over 50 percent of the sown area and domestically produced cotton rose from 59 to 97 percent of national needs. However, yields remained low while water use skyrocketed compared to the early 1920s (Table 1). By the end of the 1930s collectivization was firmly in place. The lasting legacy of this social and economic transformation was destruction of traditional irrigation in the Aral Sea basin, which converted irrigated agriculture into a completely state-controlled enterprise and set the stage for subsequent developments in irrigation for the rest of the Soviet era

Following the end of World War II, irrigation in the Aral Sea basin steadily expanded reaching nearly 5 million hectares by 1965 (Table 1). Construction of the huge Kara-Kum Canal to take water from the Amu Darya into Turkmenistan began in 1954. The already serious problems of waterlogging and soil salinization grew worse. Saline irrigation drainage water was simply dumped into rivers, worsening their water quality, or placed in desert depressions forming permanent lakes.

Construction of very large irrigation systems encompassing hundreds of thousands of hectares and extending well into the deserts was initiated during the 1950s and 1960s. To allow more mechanization, field size was dramatically increased. These new systems were supposed to improve irrigation conditions and performance. However, they did the opposite. The huge fields were impossible to irrigate evenly, requiring application of excessive quantities of water that resulted in soil erosion, rising ground water levels, and waterlogging, while secondary salinization increased water use and lowered yields. Another major problem was the fact that construction teams rapidly expanded the irrigated area without installing the proper drainage facilities.

The decades-long expansion of irrigation in the Aral Sea basin greatly slowed during the last years of the Soviet regime (1985–1991). The Gorbachev regime eschewed new irrigation projects and concentrated on improving irrigation water use efficiency and dealing with the very serious problems of soil salinization and waterlogging in already irrigated zones. The freshwater resources of the region, given existing irrigation inefficiencies, were stretched to the limit and there would be no rescue from the recently canceled plans to divert huge amounts of water thousands of kilometers southward to the Aral Sea basin from northward flowing Siberian rivers (Fig. 1).

Post-Soviet Irrigation (1992–2015)

The new states of Central Asia formed from the USSR after its collapse at the end of 1991 inherited irrigation systems developed over sixty-five years under the principles of state ownership and tight control, centralized top-down management, which allowed little initiative at the local level, a focus on cotton as the chief crop, and the need for large-scale facilities (Table 1 and Fig. 1). As independent entities for the past twenty-four years they have dealt with this legacy individually. However, given their common history and the integrated nature of the irrigation system, they face similar problems in adapting what they inherited to the future.

The key to improving management of the Aral Sea basin’s water resources, including providing more water to the shrinking Aral Sea, is irrigated agriculture. Between 1995 and 2010 the irrigated area in the Aral Sea basin for the five former Soviet Republics rose only slightly from 8.09 to 8.2 million hectares. Turkmenistan had the largest increase over this period followed by Tajikistan. The other states showed small decreases. The ranking of countries by irrigated area in the Aral Sea basin remained the same over the fifteen-year period with Uzbekistan far ahead, Turkmenistan a distant second, followed in order by Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Central Asia, Irrigation Development in

Figure 1. Contemporary Irrigation Development in the Aral Sea Basin

Courtesy Philip Micklin

Aggregate water withdrawals for irrigation in the Aral Sea basin remained essentially unchanged comparing 1995 to 2010. They were 90.1 cubic kilometers in 1995 and 91.6 cubic kilometers in 2010, constituting, respectively 80 and 84 percent of total withdrawals. Uzbekistan far and away accounted for the largest share of withdrawals followed by Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Comparing 1995 to 2010, all states except Uzbekistan showed sizeable drops in withdrawals per hectare. Uzbekistan’s withdrawals, on the other hand, grew by nearly 17 percent.

There are three major technical approaches to reducing the quantity of water used in irrigation. Taking substantial areas out of this activity would be the quickest to implement, but is not considered wise as irrigation is the most important economic activity in the Aral Sea basin and major reductions in it would have severe economic and social welfare repercussions. The need to increase food production to keep pace with population growth is also cited as a reason to expand irrigation. Hence, significant water savings through reduction of the irrigated area are unlikely for the foreseeable future. The other two methods for saving significant amounts of water in irrigation are improvements in irrigation efficiency, and switching from higher to lower water use crops. Both of these are considered to have substantial promise.

Savings in water use by improving efficiency would require extensive implementation of modern irrigation technologies, including, among other measures, lining delivery canals and leveling fields using lasers to ensure even distribution of water. Combining these techniques with Western best management practices (BMPs) that include irrigation scheduling using computers and specialized software along with real-time monitoring of soil moisture and crop water needs to determine exactly when and how much water to apply, accurate measuring of the quantity of water being used, genetic engineering of crops to lower water requirements, and precision farming using satellite imagery and GPS (Global Positioning System) technology could lead to substantially greater savings.

Israel, with similar climatic conditions to the Aral Sea basin, but technologically sophisticated irrigation practices, withdrew in the mid-1990s on an average annual basis 5,590 cubic meters/hectare compared to an average annual withdrawal of 10,600 cubic meters/hectare for the Aral Sea basin in 2010. For several technical reasons such an improvement is out of reach in the Aral Sea basin, but lowering of water withdrawals to 8,000 cubic meters/hectare are possible. Such an improvement would save nearly 20 cubic kilometers (22 percent of withdrawals) compared to the 2010 figure.

One means to obtain considerable water savings in irrigation would be to replace a substantial part of the inefficient furrow irrigation systems, which serve 70 percent of the irrigated area in the Aral Sea basin, with drip irrigation that uses much less water. However, drip systems are very expensive, require a high level of maintenance, and would be subject to severe plugging problems owing to the high sediment content of Amu Darya and Syr Darya water. Sprinkler irrigation, widely used in the United States, is also a more efficient irrigation method than the use of furrows, but may not be suitable in the extremely arid conditions of the Aral Sea basin owing to excessive evaporation losses.

Soil salinization and waterlogging are other serious problems faced by irrigation in the Aral Sea basin. They lower yields and increase water use. Over 4 million hectares or 55 percent of irrigated lands in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have been damaged by salinity. As a result, cotton and wheat harvests as well as water productivity (yields per cubic meter applied) in these zones were 20–40 percent lower than on non-saline lands. Large portions of irrigated lands suffer from high water tables as a result of the lack of drainage facilities or ones that are inadequate or not working properly. Drainage systems that keep the water table sufficiently deep are exceptionally important for irrigation in dry areas with saline ground water as is common in the Aral Sea basin. However, these cause problems themselves by dumping large quantities of contaminated irrigation drainage water into rivers. Such discharges reached 43 cubic kilometers annually by the mid-1990s.

Uzbekistani and World Bank experts in 1996 estimated the rehabilitation costs for the 5.4 million hectares of older irrigation systems in the Aral Sea basin at $3,000–$4,000/hectare. Employing the former figure, costs would total $16 billion and at the latter nearly $22 billion. Owing to inflation, the cost for similar rehabilitation today would be considerably greater. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with the largest areas under irrigation and the largest share of the systems needing reconstruction, would bear the brunt of the bill, which so far they appear unwilling and/or unable to pay.

Switching the crop mix from high water use types (e.g., rice and cotton) to lower (e.g., grains, vegetables, melons, fruits, and soybeans) could be a relatively low-cost means of reducing water use compared to massive technical rehabilitation. In fact, the reason irrigation withdrawals per hectare substantially dropped between 1990 and 2010 primarily owed to cropping changes (Table 1). The area devoted to cotton and rice was reduced whereas the area planted in winter wheat substantially increased. Significant further reduction in the area planted to cotton is unlikely in near decades as cotton is such an important foreign currency–earning export crop.

Table 1. Irrigation Data for the Aral Sea Basin



1 Only part of this area was irrigated at any one time.

Year Irrigated area (million ha) Withdrawals for irrigation (km3) Withdrawals for irrigation (m3/ha) Cotton area (million ha) Cotton % of total irrigated area Cotton yields (centnars/ha) Water use for raw cotton (m3/centnar)
antiquity 3.5–3.81 no data 10,700–11,500 minimal no data no data no data
1913 3.2 25.6–43.2 8000–13,500 0.556 17.4 12 950
1922 1.7 16 9400 0.100 5.9 7 1230
1933 3.5 40 11,500 1.800 51.4 5 1800
1940 3.8 49 13,000 1.369 36.0 14 1800
1945 no data no data 15,000 1.110 no data 10 1350
1950 3.8 57 15,000 1.580 41.6 20 800
1965 4.8 82 17,000 2.287 47.6 23 800
1980 6.3 107.1–126 17,000–20,000 2.869 45.5 29 750
1985 7.0 112–133 16,000–19,000 3.051 43.6 26 700
1990 7.25 109 14,600–17,000 2.907 41.0 8.3 no data
1995 7.94 100 12,594 2.354 29.6 7.3 no data
2000 8.1 75 9,180 2.236 27.6 5.89 no data
2005 8.1 91 11,258 2.537 31.3 6.91 no data
2010 8.2 92 11,169 2.300 28.0 6.39 no data

Adoption of governmental policies and laws promoting irrigation water pricing, privatization of land, and granting rights of self-governance and responsibility for irrigation system management to farmer-irrigators would significantly improve irrigation in the Aral Sea basin without massive governmental expenditures. The governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and particularly Kyrgyzstan, have taken some serious steps in terms of these reforms. The leaders of Uzbekistan have certainly talked about these subjects but made few moves toward implementing meaningful policies. Turkmenistan has done practically nothing. Among the key hindrances to implementation of these policies are governmental resistance based on fear of losing social and economic control, opposition from the former collective (now cooperative) farms and local officials, fear of land speculation and exacerbating rural underemployment and unemployment, lack of means to measure water deliveries to farmers, and the impoverished state of the farming economy.

Bibliography

  • Antonov, V. O. “Concerning the Program for Further Development of Irrigation in Uzbekistan.” Vestnik Arala 1 (1996): 7–10. A Uzbekistani water management expert’s view of irrigation and its problems (in Russian).
  • Clem, R. S. “The Frontier and Colonialism in Russian and Soviet Central Asia.” In R. A. Lewis, ed., Geographic Perspectives on Soviet Central Asia, pp. 19–36. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Dukhovnyy, V. A. “Save Irrigation Water!” Gidrotekhnika i melioratsiya 5 (1985): 40–43. The view of Uzbekistani irrigation expert and director of main Central Asian irrigation research institute as to what can be done to make irrigation in that Soviet Republic more efficient (in Russian).
  • ICAS. Fundamental Provisions of Water Management in the Aral Sea Basin: A Common Strategy of Water Allocation, Rational Water Use and Protection of Water Resources, prepared with the assistance of the World Bank, October 1996. Official joint study of ICAS (Interstate Council on the Problems of the Aral Sea Basin) and the World Bank.
  • IRIN News. “CENTRAL ASIA: Poorly Maintained Irrigation Systems Threaten Agriculture, 2009.” www.irinnews.org/printreport.aspx?reportid=85771. News note by a British humanitarian NGO on contemporary irrigation problems in Central Asia.
  • Karimov, A. “Water Regimes in Central Asia.” Paper given at the Aral Sea Basin Workshop, Tashkent Uzbekistan, 19–21 May 1998, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, New York. Excellent information on the history and development of irrigation in Central Asia by a Uzbekistani expert.
  • Manthrithilake, H. “Land and Water Management Issues in Central Asia, 2008.” Powerpoint presentation at the International Conference on the Problems of the Aral, their influence on the genefund of the population, vegetation and animal world and measures of international cooperation to mitigate their consequences, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 12 March 2008 (in Russian and English). Available by email attachment upon request from Philip Micklin (Micklin@wmich.edu).
  • Micklin Philip. “The Aral Sea Disaster.” In R. Jeanloz et al., eds., Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, vol. 35, Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews, 2007. Available online at arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.earth.35.031306.140120. Among other matters, it discusses irrigation in the Aral Sea basin’s relationship to the drying of the Aral Sea.
  • Micklin, Philip. “Irrigation in the Aral Sea Basin.” In Philip Micklin, Nikolay Aladin, and Igor Plotnikov, eds., The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake, pp. 207–232. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer, 2014.
  • Micklin, Philip. Managing Water in Central Asia: Central Asian and Caucasian Prospects. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2000. General treatment of key water management issues in Central Asia.
  • Pankova, Ye.I., et al. Natural and Anthropogenic Salinization of Soils in the Basin of the Aral Sea (Geography, Genesis, Evolution). Moscow: Rossiyskaya Akademiya Selskokhozyaystvennykh Nauk, 1996. Includes a detailed discussion of the development of irrigation under the Soviets and the resulting problems it caused (in Russian).
  • Thurman, J. The “Command-Administrative System” in Cotton Farming in Uzbekistan, 1920s to Present. Papers on Inner Asia, No. 32, Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Bloomington, 1999. A condensed version of Dr. Thurman’s excellent Ph.D. dissertation based on primary fieldwork in Uzbekistan.
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