KARAKALPAKSTAN -- Weather extremes are the norm in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-western part of Uzbekistan, which is surrounded by some of the world's largest deserts.
During winter, the temperature can drop below -20°C, while in summer it can easily reach +50°C. There is practically no rainfall throughout the year.
As harsh as they are, however, the climate conditions will not halt World Bank-supported civil works along part of the Bustan irrigation channel in South Karakalpakstan.
'More valuable than gold'
The South Karakalpakstan Water Resources Management Improvement Project covers Beruniy, Ellikkala and Turtkul districts of Karakalpakstan.
Islombek Ismatov, 29, manages the day-to-day operations on the construction site.
After graduating from a university in Spain, where he earned a master's degree in energy studies, Ismatov returned to Uzbekistan. He joined a local construction firm contracted under a World Bank project that supports improvement of water resource management in South Karakalpakstan.
Ismatov takes his duties seriously and even had to miss his son's birth last summer because of the heavy workload at the construction site.
"Our firm is planning to complete the civil works along the Bustan channel this year," he said. "Thousands of farmers in several districts of South Karakalpakstan will be able to receive water to irrigate their lands."
"Lack of water in this region makes it more valuable than gold," he said.
Poverty and food insecurity
Karakalpakstan is one of the poorest regions in Uzbekistan, with a poverty rate of 32%.
The region has been adversely affected by the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which started during Soviet times and led to a serious public health, economic and environmental crisis.
Inefficient water management and deteriorating irrigation and drainage systems have contributed to growing salinisation of land and of water in irrigated areas, exposure to dust storms and poor-quality drinking water.
Consequently, the local population has been impacted by worsening food security, forcing many residents to endure severe living conditions or to relocate.
The collapse of the fishing industry and decline in the agriculture, healthcare and education systems have added to outward migration. Up to 30% of working-age inhabitants of Karakalpakstan have left to find work in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Russia.
The economy of the region is mainly supported today by the production of cotton, livestock and melons -- but it also relies heavily on extensive irrigation development, much of which is poorly managed.
Improving irrigation systems is therefore critical to helping the local population here move out of poverty.
Large-scale irrigation and drainage development in Uzbekistan started in the late 1950s, with the construction of extensive waterworks, reservoirs and irrigation networks -- but this water infrastructure is now aging.
Because of deteriorating infrastructure and poor water management, it is estimated that the country loses about $1.7 billion (13 trillion UZS) annually.
Impressive benefits promised
More than 40% of the irrigation supply in the project area depend on three major pumping stations and more than 20 floating pumping stations that withdraw water from the Amu Darya River.
The total annual energy cost of pumping water amounts to about $2.4 million (18 billion UZS).
To reduce dependence on pumping, the project will develop a gravity off-take from the Tuyamuyun reservoir and dismantle all lower Amu Darya pumping stations serving the project area. This will result in energy savings equivalent to the annual consumption of a city of 160,000 inhabitants.
Seventy kilometres of the Bustan irrigation channel will be modernised, leading to a 50% reduction in water losses, and less water withdrawn from the Amu Darya.
Irrigation supply will become more reliable, and farmers will be able to grow higher-value crops, such as fruits and vegetables, which are less water intensive and can generate incomes five times higher than cotton and wheat.
Thanks to the project, 1,500 private farms and 40,000 small family farms will benefit from more reliable water distribution. More than 30,000 hectares of abandoned land will be recovered for horticulture and fodder crop production once the irrigation water supply is restored.
Creating downstream opportunities
During consultations with inhabitants of the project area, farmers stated that the improved irrigation would not only allow them to create additional jobs on farms, but that new job opportunities would also be possible in downstream production.
These opportunities include the processing of juice, jam and cheese, for example, as well as in the storing and packaging of agriculture products (fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat), which can later be sold domestically or exported.
Ismatov said confidently that 2018 would be a year of great achievements.
This summer, the construction team will complete the civil works along the Bustan channel to bring long-awaited water to fields of Karakalpakstan.
Having accomplished this mission, Ismatov is planning to be at home with his family, celebrating his son's first birthday.
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