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Water in the Desert? Massive Engineering Project Seen from Space (Photo)

The Hanhowuz Reservoir of Turkmenistan
The Hanhowuz Reservoir of Turkmenistan seen on April 18, 2014. This manmade lake enables the farming of water-thirsty crops like cotton in the desert, but has contributed to the rapid shrinking of the Aral Sea. (Image credit: NASA)

The Hanhowuz Reservoir of Turkmenistan feeds a checkerboard of agricultural fields, even as it starves the Aral Sea. 

Created by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, this reservoir draws water from the Amu-Darya River, more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away. This water is life for Turkmenistan, 80 percent of which is made up of the enormous Garagum desert, according to the CIA World Factbook. But the project has caused a huge environmental headache for Turkmenistan's neighbors. 

The Amu-Darya, as it turns out, is a major feeder of the Aral Sea, a body of water at the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. With less water flowing in, the Aral Sea is now a shadow of its former self; in fact, water levels have dropped so much that the sea is now actually four smaller lakes. In 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the Aral Sea "one of the worst" environmental disasters of the world. [The 7 Most Dangerous Places on Earth]

Dried-up disaster

According to the UN's Environment Programme (UNEP), the Soviet diversions took 90 percent of the flow from the Amu Darya, as well as the Aral Sea's other major contributor, the Syr Darya.

Between 1963 and 1987, the lake lost 60 percent of its volume, and its salt concentration doubled. 

The result is less water for populations around the Aral Sea, and more problems: Salt evaporated from the lakebed is picked up by wind and blown to surrounding areas, literally salting the earth and hampering agriculture. Fishing is a thing of the past, while drinking water is becoming more scarce. 

If current water usage continues, the Aral Sea will vanish entirely by 2020, according to UNEP. Dam projects and efforts by Kazakhstan are under way to save the sea, but there is little chance it will ever be restored to its former glory. 

Where the water went

This new satellite image shows what was gained for Turkmenistan with the loss of the Aral Sea. The Garagum Canal, which was constructed between 1954 and 1988, can be seen cutting through agricultural fields in the bottom third of the image. As a result, farmers grow water-thirsty crops in the desert, including cotton. Agriculture employs half of Turkmenistan's workforce and accounts for 7 percent of GDP, according to the CIA World Factbook. But the country is still very poor, with 30 percent of the population below the poverty line and 60 percent unemployed as of 2004. 

This image of the Hanhowuz Reservoir was taken by the Landsat 8 satellite on April 18, and is shown in natural color, according to NASA's Earth Observatory, which released the image today (July 1). A curl of sediment-rich water from the Garagum Canal can be seen emptying into the turquoise waters of the artificial lake. 

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.