Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageALN #45, Spring/Summer 1999
Water in Cities

Water and Cities in Arid Central Asia

by David Smith

"Central Asia is a region of the former Soviet Union that contains the newly independent republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,and Turkmenistan. It is a region consisting of low-lying desert terrain surrounded to the south and southeast by very high mountain ranges. The mountains tend to block any moderating climatic influences that would flow from the Indian sub-continent bringing much-needed precipitation to the region. With a high percentage of young people in their populations, and very low out-migration, population growth rates are very high. In addition, urban areas are expanding as their post-Soviet economies struggle to develop. The supply of, and access to, water resources are becoming critically important issues in the region. This paper explores urban water management problems and solutions in selected cities in Central Asia by examining urban water management strategies involving water supply and sanitation issues."


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As a consequence of the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the five newly independent republics of Central Asia now have a significant influence over their own water resources.

As the countries in the region follow their separate paths to economic development, access to adequate water supplies of good quality becomes a paramount issue. With economic development comes an increase in the rate of urbanization and a higher demand for water by cities and other urban settlements. Unfortunately, during Soviet administration of the Central Asian region, imposition of water management strategies from outside the region was the norm, and local universities did not offer course on water resources management. Thus, for the time being the area as a whole suffers from a shortage of well-trained water management personnel. Also, because surface waters in Central Asia flow across boundaries separating these states, water management in the region also increasingly involves the establishment of new intra-statal ties and cooperation. The following is an examination of contemporary water management problems and solutions in selected major cities in Central Asia.

Water in Central Asia: access and availability

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Water resources in Central Asia are limited by both distribution and amount. Distribution involves the location of populations and their access to water supplies as well as the availability of water supplies by season. Water is also limited by total amount available and amount available per person. Interestingly, it has been said that Central Asia has enough available water resources to support a population of 35 to 50 million people, but that the water is so unevenly distributed as to be effectively in short supply. Whatever the case, in traditionally rural Central Asia, rapid increases in urban areas have brought new demands on the region's limited water resources. Various attempts are being made to address the problems arising from this situation. In some cases like Turkmenistan, investments are being made in reverse osmosis systems. Water-saving measures are being emphasized more than looking for new water resources; for example, in agriculture, drip irrigation systems are being used.

The distribution of water resources in Central Asia is shaped by the region's physical geography. The region consists of low-lying desert terrain bordered on the south and southeast by very high mountain ranges. The Tyan Shan Mountains form part of its eastern border with China's Xinjiang Province. The Pamirs in the south represent the beginning of the Himalayan mountain chain moving into China and India; the Kopet Dag mountains in the southwest form the border between Turkmenistan and Iran. The world's highest-latitude deserts, the Kyzl Kum and Kara Kum, form much of the rest of the northern and middle part of Central Asia.

The mountains tend to block any moderating climatic influences that would otherwise flow from the Indian sub-continent bringing much-needed precipitation to the region. Summers are hot and winters are generally cool or cold. Regional precipitation varies from 100 mm per year in the deserts to 300 mm in the foothills to the south and east. The bulk of Central Asia's 55 million people, and therefore, most cities and urban settlements, are located along the slopes of the mountains and are supported mainly by surface water diversions from rivers and streams rising in the mountains and flowing into the Central Asian basin. The largest of these rivers, the Amu Darya and the Sur Darya, flow northwestward into the Aral Sea. Lesser streams eventually disappear in the hot desert sands.

It is estimated by the hydrometeorological service of Uzbekistan that there exists a total of approximately 131 cubic kilometers (km3) per year of water available for use in Central Asia. With an estimated 1998 population of 56 million people, there is an average of only about 2 1/2 m3 of water available per person per year. In addition, about 80% of all water diversions are used for irrigation purposes; the remainder is divided between industrial and personal uses.

Cities in Central Asia obtain their water mainly from surface diversions, although a few supplement surface diversions with some groundwater development. The largest city in Central Asia, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, obtains most of its water from surface diversion of the Chirchik River originating in Tyan Shan mountains northeast of the city. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, obtains its water supply both from streams flowing out of the Kopet Dag mountains forming the border with Iran to the south and from the Kara Kum Canal system, after the water has traveled hundreds of miles from its diversion point along the middle Amu Darya near the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. Most groundwater that is used in Central Asia is pumped from fresh water lenses that form as water seeps down through the sandy banks of the many unlined canal systems found throughout the region. Most of the cities and towns found along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya on its way to the Aral Sea obtain their water in this way.

Water in Uzbekistan

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The low flow of rivers in many regions of Uzbekistan is a big problem right now. There is not enough water for everyone, particularly in the Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Andijan. Pollution from several large industrial complexes in those areas, including a Tajik aluminum plant, non-ferrous metallurgy in the Chirchik area, and phenols from oil refineries, combined with waste from animal raising in rural areas, has jeopardized the quality of what little water exists. These are all point sources rather than non-point sources. Non-point sources include pesticides and fertilizers from irrigation drainage. So far, no method has been developed to purify these large volumes.

Nonetheless, the government is working to upgrade water availability and quality. It is planned that every person in Uzbekistan will have access to clean drinking water and that 60% of cities and 40% of rural areas will have sewage systems by the year 2005. By 1996, only 40% of Uzbekistan's cities had sewers and rural areas had only 12% sewer coverage. People who install home water purification systems in Uzbekistan are trying to remove heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms. According to the head of the Ministry of Health in Uzbekistan in 1996, typical community treatment plants in Uzbekistan do not remove all pesticides, radionuclides, and microorganisms, so such filters are probably useful.

Major pollution problems include industrial effluents, rural animal wastes, and agricultural drainage waters. Problems exist also with food, such as high nitrate pollution of melons from high fertilizer applications. Point-of-use water treatment is seen as being valuable, due to imperfect headwater treatment. Water-borne illnesses, in particular hepatitis A, seem to be very high in Tashkent. Even so, Tashkent is seen as having the best water treatment in the country, whereas health problems are especially prevalent in the Aral Sea area. Populations in towns and villages in salinated areas around the Aral Sea have higher incidences of kidney stones and intestinal tract problems due to poor water quality. A water treatment plant is being built in the city of Khorezm to solve some of these problems.

Water management strategies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

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Tashkent currently has 7 water treatment plants in operation for almost 2.5 million people. Most of the population of Tashkent obtained water directly from open irrigation ditches prior to a severe 1966 earthquake, after which the city moved to enclosed water treatment and separate water and sewage treatment systems.

Tashkent's water originates in the Chatkal Range of the Tyan Shan Mountains. The bacteria level is low at the source, but the water is hard and turbid in the spring. It often looks like chocolate milk and contains 25,000 mg/l of suspended matter. Aluminum sulfate is used in the settling tanks or pools at water treatment plants to flocculate sediment. American filters are used for rapid filtration after settling. The water is collected in clean water reservoirs where chlorine is then added.

Water quality is monitored for more than 200 components. There are 23 indicators for drinking water, including measurements of hardness, turbidity, and residual chlorine. State standards for drinking water set under the former USSR are still being used and are generally lower than in the United States. The highest hardness allowed is 1.5 mg/l, and 1.1 mg/l is usually measured. Some water comes from underground sources and its hardness is usually measured around 7 mg/l. Nitrates are required to be less than 45 mg/l and are usually measured to be 20 mg/l. Nitrates are usually higher in underground water. Fluoride occurs naturally in the water, so it is not added.

Tashkent sits about 20 miles downstream from the industrial city of Chirchik. With many chemical plants in the area, heavy metal contamination of Tashkent's water supply must be a problem. Because of the lower, older, USSR state standards, levels of lead, mercury and others may be higher in Tashkent's water supply than they would be elsewhere in the world.

Extensive displays of water fountains and trees occur throughout the city. The fountains are huge walls of water ten feet high that cool their surroundings by as much as 10o C. People stroll alongside them to cool off during the day . The trees consist of row upon row of large sycamores, oaks, and maples that have been imported from western Russia. These displays were set up 1950s during the USSR period to show how Communism could defy natural principles and make the desert bloom, with enough water left over to use on fountains and beautiful trees and gardens. It's said that water quality in Tashkent is so bad that purified drinking water is used to water the city's plants.

Water in Turkmenistan

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Turkmenistan's primary surface water source is the Kara Kum Canal(previously named the Kara Kum Canal imeni ["in the name of"] Lenin; now named the Kara Kum Canal imeni Niyazov). However, underground fresh water lenses have become the primary source of drinking water in all of Turkmenistan. There is a 2X lower bacteria (E. coli.) count in the lenses than in the Kara Kum Canal itself because the sandy soil screens out some of the larger microorganisms. Hepatitis epidemics break out when people drink out of the Canal. Mineralization is usually 1.2-1.8 grams per liter (g/l).

In rural areas, 50% comes from groundwater, and 50% comes from surface water. Water wells on kolkhozes (collective farms) are chlorinated because pumping stations along the intakes also chlorinate groundwater for shallow wells. However, as workers just toss handfuls of dry NaOCl into the water, such treatment cannot be considered 100% effective. There are no chlorination holding tanks for large wells at kolkhozes. (Individual farmers drill their own wells, but these are tested by health inspectors, and chlorination is added where necessary). Demineralization is the number one problem in treatment. Also, about seventy percent of the people in Turkmenistan have "some sort" of sewage treatment.

There are very few point sources of water contaminants in Turkmenistan. Researchers are currently trying to determine transport mechanisms of those that do exist. Contaminant levels fluctuate widely both areally and temporally. Sudden increases in mercury, cadmium and lead are observed in the spring at the mouth of the Kara Kum Canal, then drop as the summer wears on. Mining operations in the mountains from which the Amu Darya flows out onto the desert are the probable sources for the heavy metal contamination, especially with the spring snowmelt contributing to higher stream flow at that time.

Turkmenistan has had a water deficit since 1986, and that has increased every year. In a partial attempt to remedy this situation, there are plans to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Dashauz, a city near the Aral Sea in northern Turkmenistan. The water could be desalinated (36-40 g/l to 0.5 g/l) at a plant in Dashauz, which would actually be cheaper than properly treating the water in the lens below Dashauz to remove pollutants and salinity. Using deeper groundwater in Dashauz would not be possible. According to geologists, this water is also saline and contaminated with pollutants. There would be the added cost of drilling and maintaining wells. Geologists think there is much less water in the deep groundwater than in the lens, so it would not be worth it in the long run to tap into such a small supply.

Water management strategies in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

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Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a city of 300,000 people located on the southern edge of the Kara Kum desert near Turkmenistan's border with Iran. Fifty percent of public drinking water for Ashgabat comes from the Kara Kum Canal and 50% comes from surface runoff from the low mountains south of the city.

Two water treatment plants serve the city of Ashgabat. The northern half of the city is served by a plant supplied by water from the Kara Kum Canal. The facility is approximately 20-30 years old. The aeration tanks are made of wooden slats. Chlorine gas is used for chlorination. In a visit to Ashgabat in 1996, I observed a huge chlorine gas cylinder lying on the ground outside the plant, anchored only by its pipe connection to the building. Small earthquakes are common in Ashgabat, so this is not a safe practice. Gas masks hung on hooks just inside the door from the chlorine tank, leading me to infer that a tank had come loose and spewed chlorine gas before.

The chemistry lab in which water analyses are conducted lacks state-of-the-art equipment. The lab technician does iodometric titrations by hand to determine residual chlorine in the water. The method is simple (it is used in freshman chemistry laboratories) but effective. For round-the-clock analyses, however, an automated system would be much more efficient. All records were kept by hand in log books, and the lab technician checks results against Soviet standards from 30 years ago. Safety measures to protect both plant personnel and the public are inadequate by current international standards; attitudes demonstrated by plant personnel during the 1996 visit seemed to indicate that such safety issues are a low priority.

Treatment systems vary depending on the condition of the water in the source. One can have treatment alone, desalination plus treatment, etc. Previously, all water was treated to Soviet water quality standards based on an assumed consumption level of one liter per person per day. In Turkmenistan, people drink four liters per day. Turkmenistan plans to develop standards for people who drink eight liters per day.

A Pema (Turkey)/Culligan filtration treatment project being built near the Ashgabat Water Treatment Plant (Kara Kum Canal water); unfortunately it will not make the water drinkable. The salinity of the water is so high--greater than one g/l before treatment--that treating the water to potable standards would make operating costs prohibitive. There are currently no locally available techniques to reduce the mineral hardness of the water, remove heavy metals, or remove nitro-organic compounds. The chloro-organics that will form when this water is treated with chlorine will be a major problem. Trihalomethanes will be very high.

There is a chronic deficit of iodine and throughout Turkmenistan. It has been recommended that the Pema project be changed to include addition of these compounds to drinking water. However, such a change would be more expensive than the current $13.5 million price tag, and no decision has been made even though construction began in 1994.

Ashgabat water does not meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards either; no water in the country does. It is over the limit on 87% of the indicators. There are even sharp shortages of water in Ashgabat and Ashgabat Province from surface water and the lenses. The Turkmenistan government is not planning to charge the public for drinking water; this is considered "commercialization." A presidential decree states that electricity, gas, and water should be free. Unfortunately, government funding alone is not currently sufficient to attract high-quality personnel to repair inadequate infrastructure or to improve water quality to adequate levels. So the waste and poor quality continue even though there is a severe shortage of water. Furthermore, pipes are not produced in Turkmenistan, so the government must pay hard currency to replace, maintain, and expand water facilities. It remains to be seen what the government will decide is the best course for remedying this difficult situation.


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Some of the information in this paper came from my participation in the "Young Investigator's Program: Water Management in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan" sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council during August and September 1996. During this two-month program, a group of half a dozen researchers traveled throughout Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan interviewing water managers especially in cities, towns, and villages. Thanks are due to the NAS - NRC for sponsoring this program. (Additional information was gathered solely through my own research on various trips to Central Asia.)

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Author information

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Dr. David Smith is an Assistant Professor of Geography in the Department of History and Political Science, Ohio Northern University. You can reach him for comment as follows:
David Smith
Ohio Northern University
Dept. of History
525 N. Main St.
Ada, OH 45810
Telephone: +1(419) 772-2096

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