Turkmenistan celebrates 30 years of independence in 2021. But what does its past and current environmental policy look like, and what does it reveal about the country?
In an article published on the Turkmen news site Orient.tm on 16 February 2021, the journalist Gozel Sahatova praised Turkmenistan’s recognition of the world’s fight against global warming. She reported that, to mark the occasion, 30 million seedlings will be planted across the country during the year. According to the article, this contribution to the wellbeing of Turkmenistan and its inhabitants and indeed the wider world comes alongside many other contributions.
The modernisation of key sectors of the economy (oil and gas, agriculture, industrial) is mentioned, as is the meeting of international environmental safety standards. An emphasis is also placed on the introduction of water- and energy-saving technologies and the value of the Turkmen experience for international practice.
The article also points towards Turkmen ratification of international agreements on climate change: the 1991 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Central Asian state also included new goals related to the Paris Agreement in its 2019 National Strategy. Finally, the author highlights Turkmen initiatives on the environment, such as a multilateral cooperation mechanism in the Caspian Sea.
Precise data on Turkmenistan can be difficult to acquire and analyse due to its being closed off to significant international relations with foreign countries under a policy of neutrality. With that in mind, it’s worth asking whether the country’s environmental record is as clean as it seems.
A question of prestige
Independent Turkmenistan has had various environmental issues that weaken Orient.tm’s claims. The introduction of water-saving technologies, for example, seems overshadowed by the failure of the huge Golden Age Lake project, a plan for a 800-kilometre network of canals across the desert to bring water into the Karashor depression.
This project was conceived under the former president Saparmyrat Nyýazow and continued under his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, in spite of expert warnings of the difficulty of accumulating water due to evaporation in an arid region.
Yet the Golden Age Lake fitted into the wider idea of a Turkmen Golden Age. At the completion of the first stage of the project in 2009, Berdimuhamedow proclaimed that the “most daring plans are made a reality”. The completion of the first stage of the project was thus a “truly historic event”. However, evaporation issues were compounded by poor construction and a lack of consideration of meteorological factors such as wind drift affecting the canal course, causing, according to one Turkmen expert, a ticking time bomb for the country’s already troubled environmental situation.
In this light, the project may seem more questionable. In an interview with Novastan, Filippo Menga, an associate professor in geography at the University of Bergamo whose research focuses on water politics, points out the discrepancy between “the government’s triumphant narrative and the concerns raised by the scientific and international community”. However, he explained, the contradictions are understandable: “The aim seems to be the end in itself – with the end being launching a self-referential project that fits with and reinforces the Altyn Asyr, or Golden Age, rhetoric.”
Rather than strictly being about water, then, it is more a question of “projecting domestic power and reinforcing the image of Berdimuhamedow as a visionary and benevolent leader who goes to great lengths to improve living conditions in Turkmenistan,” Menga said. More recently, the project “seems to have gone off the radar in the political agenda of the government” due to the “apparent insuccess of the venture”. Indeed, as of 2021, the Karashor depression is almost empty.
Beyond the Golden Age Lake
At a 19 February 2021 conference on the state of agriculture in the country, Berdimuhamedow suggested the cleaning and dredging of Turkmen rivers and the maintenance of dams to ensure water supply for irrigation. International organisations have also recognised the importance of environmental action in Turkmenistan: USAID, for instance, has recently financed the dredging of the Murgab river for around $170,000 (approximately £120,000).
In addition to the Golden Age Lake project, the Turkmen activist Farid Tukhbatullin has highlighted wider problems of water governance in the country in an article for The Third Pole, an online magazine dedicated to the issue of water in Asia. Tukhbatullin mentions the lack of a uniform post-independence strategy, water-intensive cotton and wheat crops, and the expansion of irrigation. This is intensified by soil salinisation caused by poor maintenance of water collection systems, leaving a snow-looking layer of salt which greatly reduces crop yield in Turkmenistan and even in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
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In his article, Tukhbatullin also mentions that localised actions, though helpful and well-intentioned, address symptoms rather than root causes, and thus cannot be a major driver of change. Menga similarly states that what is more necessary is a “coordinated regional action driven by a strong and genuine political will to cooperate.”
And indeed, the knock-on effects of Turkmenistan’s lack of water collection system maintenance for Uzbekistan show the interconnectedness of the region. As Menga told Novastan: “Central Asia, as a region, stands out as one marked by inextricable interconnections and interdependencies, and low or limited cooperation on regional issues is not beneficial to anyone, and in particular the peoples of Central Asia, who will be most severely affected by environmental degradation and unequal distribution of resources.”
“Lack of maintenance of shared regional infrastructure has been an issue in Central Asia since the 1990s, and the lack of a coordinated approach and long-term agreement to deal with this issue is likely to trigger tensions and conflicts in the future,” he added.
Gas and oil
Furthermore, Turkmenistan is a country rich in oil and natural gas, and with the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan, may soon have the possibility to export to Europe and reduce its dependency on China and Russia, especially in the global post-corona virus economic resurgence which will see increased production, according to a 2021 IEA report on methane emissions. The country is dependent on hydrocarbon revenue, and the steep decline in price from 2014 has intensified food shortages.
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The country aims to stabilise or reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, though a 19% increase is expected. These targets may be complicated by multiple significant methane leaks detected since 2019. The latest, in February 2021, amounted to an equivalent of 10 tons of methane per hour being released for multiple hours into the atmosphere. This was equivalent to the emissions of 250,000 cars. The French energy data analytics firm Kayrros suggested the leak was the result of budget cuts related to a slow-down in the hydrocarbon industry due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The rise of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s son Serdar to the post of deputy prime minister for digitisation and innovative technologies is a signal of a future transfer of power from father to son. Though it is difficult to speculate on what his environmental and political stance may be, existing issues and a lack of comprehensive solutions mean that if he comes to power, Serdar Berdimuhamedow will inherit a fragile environment that will echo the predicament of the entire region.