Muslim Republics Welcome Israeli Irrigation Expertise

ISRAELI irrigation projects are advancing across Central Asia, from China to the Caspian Sea.

The five Muslim republics that were once part of the Soviet Union have made not only a de facto recognition of the state of Israel; they have spent millions of dollars of their scarce foreign-currency reserves on Israeli technology, mostly in agricultural development.

Beta Shita Company of Tel Aviv, for instance, pocketed $6 million for a trial irrigation system in the Andezhan region of eastern Uzbekistan. The company already has a system near Dushanbe in Tajikistan and is planning one near Khiva in northern Turkmenistan.

Netafim Inc. is also active in Central Asia. "We do a lot of business in this part of the world," says Udi Zur, a company representative in Tel Aviv. "We have irrigation systems all over Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan."

Many Israeli company officials know Central Asia well, having emigrated from there just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Many Jews have relations here if they emigrated recently," says Sadik Safaev, first deputy at the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations. "Over 2,000 years, these people did a lot for this country. Uzbekistan ... welcomes activity from Israeli firms."

Even Turkmenistan's local religious leaders seem surprisingly untroubled by the Israeli presence in Ashkhabad. Touring a recent exhibition of hi-tech Western and Israeli goods in Ashkhabad, Imam Amangelde, the highest religious authority in Turkmenistan, simply praised the quality of the goods he saw. "Our people have a great interest in this exhibition," he said. "We are interested in working with these other countries."

Israeli companies have exported their expertise in hot-climate agriculture all over the world, even to the United States.

"Four Israeli companies are dealing with Uzbekistan," Mr. Safaev says. "The Israelis used to be large cotton producers. But their experience is just wasting away in Israel. Now they want to sell this experience to Uzbekistan."

An Israeli government representative traveled to Ashkhabad this summer to propose far-reaching Israeli involvement in Turkmenistan. "We have a master plan for the entire country's agricultural system," says Dan Meiri, director of agriculture at the Israeli government's Export Institute. "Turkmenistan's main problem is salination. We could desalinate the whole country for about $10 billion. We put a proposal to the Turkmenistan government," but they needed time to decide, he says.

"Turkmenistan's irrigation system is chaotic," Mr. Zur says. "They have one main canal that is ruining everything. It leaks, so the surrounding water level is rising. It's now very near the surface and, with these temperatures, evaporation is a big problem. That leaves salt." Mr. Meiri's proposal involves repairing the leaks in the canal, installing closed pipes, pumping stations, and a complete drip irrigation system to ensure that soil quality improved and water-loss reduced.

Sustained overuse of water resources in neighboring Uzbekistan has caused the level of the main canal to drop markedly in the last few years, Uzbek and Turkmen experts say. "Cotton cultivation demands a lot of water," says Shahzod Arifbaev, an Uzbek cotton producer. "The area of land in Uzbekistan under cultivation has doubled in the last 25 years from 2 million to 4 million hectares." So water taken from the rivers has also doubled, he says.

Zur says Turkmen government officials were interested in his proposals. "We'd probably have to do a barter," he says. The newly independent republics still use the nonconvertible ruble. Hard currency is extremely scarce. Many foreign companies now use a kind of barter to sell their products there. They find an overseas buyer to pay dollars for Central Asian raw materials, and earmark the resulting cash as payment for their own goods. In effect, the dollars never leave the West.

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