Desert Floods

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 2/27/2012

The Syr Darya is a mighty river. It may seem small in comparison to the larger regional river, the Amu Darya, and naturally also to those familiar with larger rivers in areas with more rainfall – like here in the US with the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, etc. Let all of that be as it may – the Syr Darya is a big deal in northern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan. And though it is outside the focus of this post, the Syr Darya is, if anything, a Kyrgyzstani River, rising there and flowing through most of the country as either the Naryn or Kara Darya before joining to create the Syr Darya. These rivers have been the lifeblood of agriculture in the region historically.

Water management is a topic that crops up on Registan from time to time for a couple of reasons, not least of which is its usefulness to observers as a gauge of domestic and international governance and relations between these three neighbors in Central Asia. It also allows one to ruminate on the dualistic nature of the Soviet inheritance these countries share: while the rivers have been largely “tamed” for use in irrigation, drinking water, and the production of electricity, these services did not come free of charge. While irrigation and damming existed on a limited scale prior to the 20th century, modern historians assume (so far without contradiction from archaeological evidence) that such large-scale waterworks are relatively new to the area.

This spring, the government of Kazakhstan is preparing for a large amount of snow-melt to push the Syr Darya over its banks downstream in the area of the Arys River confluence, in turn hindering the Arys River from discharging its own water. The region in question is west of Shymkent and south of Turkestan. In another example of the resurrection of Soviet plans (whether out of cultural necrophilia or out of actual necessity), the government built a reservoir to hold this flood water for use in the summers in the fields (read cultivated deserts) of the region. It was intended to halt flooding, but the government is claiming victory, pointing out that the flooding would have been much worse without it.

While the construction of the new reservoir near the town of Kokarai is laudable for its efforts to aid a relatively small, under-represented population far from the major cities of Kazakhstan, it was likely intended more to provide employment (along the lines of the massive public works projects of the Soviet period) than to promise serious flood relief to the region down the road.

The reason, I believe, that the plan was rather doomed is that the Syr Darya has more reservoirs than one can shake a stick at. The flooding in this particular region stems more from the mismanagement of water resources coming into the massive Shardara reservoir (on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), which already has a checkered past in water management after its unplanned creation of the much-larger and practically useless (for the purposes of irrigation, tourism, or potable water) Aydarkul.

I have not seen this reservoir for myself – the volume mentioned in the reports is quite large. It doesn’t yet appear on Google Maps (not today, at least), but I’m curious as to how effective it will prove to be. Shardara is still quite young itself (finished in the 1960s) and the increased snowmelt possibly caused by global warming may have pushed it, and similar reservoirs, simply beyond its intended limits.

This story was inspired by this interesting Op-Ed at Gazeta KZ. Absolutely worth a look if water management and governmental mismanagement interests the reader.


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– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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