Turkmen inventors tackle water scarcity

December 2020

By R.A. Karliev, IP attorney, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Water covers over 70 percent of the earth's surface, yet the freshwater required to sustain agriculture, industrial and municipal services makes up just a fraction of the planet’s water resources. That is why it is imperative to develop new ways to use existing freshwater supplies responsibly and to search for new sources of freshwater.

Turkmenistan's arid conditions mean that innovative water-saving technologies are essential for improving the country’s agricultural capabilities. (Photo: Dusan Popovic / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

In countries like Turkmenistan with large expanses of arid land, agricultural development is held back by high levels of soil salinity and acute shortages of freshwater. Most crops cannot tolerate saline soils. High levels of salinity can result in low yields or even crop failure. Scarcity of freshwater also inhibits efforts to claim new lands for agricultural production. In Turkmenistan, just 11.5 percent of the country’s land surface is used for agricultural development. Only with the most efficient use water resources will it be possible to bring 20 percent of its territory into cultivation.

Up to 80 percent of the country’s irrigated lands are in close proximity to saline groundwater, which lies between one and two meters below the surface. At this depth, soil becomes saline very quickly. Water rises through soil capillaries to the earth's surface and evaporates leaving concentrations of salt in and on the soil. This leads to losses in soil fertility.

In Turkmenistan, just 11.5 percent of the country’s land surface is used for agricultural development.

Soil salinity also creates a favorable environment for moisture-loving weeds, insects and other pests. In Turkmenistan, these challenges are made all the more difficult by earthquakes, which are quite common. In an attempt to overcome these challenges, Turkmen inventors have come up with various ingenious solutions to lower groundwater levels, desalinate the land and secure alternative sources of freshwater.

A cost-effective tool for soil desalinization

Inventors like Gennady Galifanov and Victor Vavilov observed that excess salt from clay bricks used for housebuilding formed an unsightly exterior crust on buildings – a process known as efflorescence – making it difficult to maintain the walls of a building. This same process of efflorescence occurs on land that lies above saline groundwater sources.

Salt deposition in the Karakum desert, Turkmenistan. High levels of soil salinity presents significant challenges for agricultural production in Turkmenistan, greatly impacting soil fertility and crop yields. (Photo: Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo)

Intrigued by this process, Gennady Galifanov and Victor Vavilov found a way to convert this natural salinization process into a tool for desalinization. In so doing, they have developed various technological devices to extract salt from soil while at the same time capturing water for irrigation through a process of condensation. The technology, developed 30 years ago in 1988-1989, was protected with USSR author’s certificates No. 1547789, No. 1634641, No. 1638110, No. 1654261, No. 1761681, which at the time had the same legal effect as a patent.

About authors’ certificates

Authors’ certificates existed during the Soviet period. These certificates had the same legal effect as a patent. Unlike patents, inventions protected by authors’ certificates were the property of the State and could be used by anyone, without the author’s permission. The inventor or author received a small percentage of the annual revenues generated by the invention.

Unlike traditional land desalinization methods, these devices offer a cost-effective solution for removing fertilizer and pesticide residues from surface water. The desalinization process is 80 times cheaper than conventional methods and the cost of capturing water for irrigation is five times cheaper than those methods. The process also allows for the harvesting of up to 13 tons of dry salts and 800 cubic meters of freshwater per hectare.

Various pilot projects have demonstrated the huge potential of these inventions for land reclamation. The technology is quite simple. On lands where groundwater lies between 1.3 and 2 meters below the surface, a trench chain excavator cuts slits (20 to 30 cm wide and 1 to 1.7 meters deep) every 10 to 20 meters. The bands of land between each slit are covered with mulch to reduce evaporation of surface moisture. With this technology moisture moves vertically through the soil capillaries and evaporates when it reaches the surface where the salt ore – which is practically free from impurities – is deposited.

About our planet and water

Did you know:

  • One cubic kilometer of cloud contains about 2,000 tons of water.
  • Every year, 520 thousand cubic kilometers of water evaporate from the earth’s surface and that the same amount precipitates. This is comparable to the volume of the Black Sea (492.6 thousand km3 of water).
  • The moisture in the atmosphere changes 40 times a year, or every nine days on average.
  • 70 percent of all atmospheric moisture stays within the first 3.5 kilometers of the earth’s surface, with the first 5 kilometers containing 90 percent of the total water vapor.
Source: The World of Water by Vladimir Fedorovich

The land desalinization mechanism shown in Figure 1 has since inspired a range of other technologies that both extract freshwater and harvest dry salts from saltwater. Unlike traditional desalinization plants, these technologies do not produce any environmentally harmful by-products. They are solar powered and can produce around 2,000 liters of freshwater per year, per square meter of land. Such output is more than double that of traditional plants.

Ninety-nine percent of the root biomass of agricultural plants stays in the soil to a depth of 60 to 120 centimeters, from which they extract moisture and nutrients for their development.

Production costs are also significantly lower than conventional operations. The technologies can be used in both stationary plants and mobile units and can treat water of any salt concentration to produce dry salts for the chemical industry. Unfortunately, to date, the inventors have been unable to secure the investment required to commercialize their inventions in Turkmenistan or elsewhere.

Technologies for optimal management of freshwater

In Turkmenistan, innovative irrigation technology
to support efficient use of water resources is the key
to bringing more land into production.
(Photo: Courtesy of R.A. Karliev)

Ninety-nine percent of the root biomass of agricultural plants stays in the soil to a depth of 60 to 120 centimeters, from which they extract moisture and nutrients for their development. It follows, therefore, that if plants are to thrive, water from irrigation systems needs to penetrate the soil to these depths. However, water penetration beyond these depths can result in leaching soils of nutrients and wastage of freshwater.

To address this issue, Gennady Galifanov and Victor Vavlilov have developed a range of irrigation signaling devices to ensure that irrigation systems optimize plant growth, while minimizing water loss. When the root layer is sufficiently moist, the device tells the operator to stop watering. When soil moisture falls to critical limits, the device signals the need to start watering again. The process repeats periodically as the crops grow. This ingenious device eliminates any loss of water and nutrients beyond the root zone and reduces the engineering drainage load.

Excess water is channeled beyond the irrigated area via a system of pipes that lie 2 to 2.5 meters below ground to create a closed drainage system. Alternatively, an open drainage system of excavated drainage channels with a depth of 3 to 4 meters may be used. Water that seeps away from the root layer through a closed drainage system is discharged into a network of open drains and then discharged through a network of larger drainage channels (collectors) into natural or artificial reservoirs (or depressions). Insofar as they prevent water logging and the salinization of irrigated lands, such drainage solutions allow for better management of freshwater resources and increase agricultural productivity through more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides. 

These devices have been tested successfully in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan and are protected in various countries in the region through a range of authors’ certificates and patents, as follows: author’s certificate No.1680019, No.1681772, No.1743480, No.1757533, No.1787373, No.1804751; Russian Federation patent No. 2050117, Eurasian patent No. 027647.

Optimizing deep filtration irrigation channels

Figure 1: Unlike traditional desalinization methods, this eco-friendly
device and others invented by Gennady Galifanov and Victor Vavilov
offer cost-effective solutions for removing fertilizer and pesticide
residues from surface water.

Up to 35 percent of freshwater is lost in deep filtration irrigation channels that lie in sandy soils and are lined with concrete slabs. The joints of these slabs are a point of weakness in these systems. Temperature variations often weaken and destroy the seals and thereby significantly reduce the filtration capacity of the channels.

To overcome the problem, Gennady Galifanov, Shabanova Larisa, Ata Annaniyazov and others have developed joints that can withstand thermal and biological decay. Once again, the inventors sought to protect their innovative solution with IP rights in the form of author’s certificates and patents - author's certificate: No.1541339, No.1708933, No.1715941, No.1715942, No.1723236, No.1728339, No.1730340 and No.1788130, and Russian Federation patent No.2012707, No.2029821 and No.2031194.

With the exception of Eurasian Patent No. 027647, all of the aforementioned IP rights are in the public domain. A detailed description of these technologies is available online. Alternatively, the inventors will provide copies of author’s certificates and patent documents on request.

Up to 35 percent of freshwater is lost in deep filtration irrigation channels that lie in sandy soils and are lined with concrete slabs.

The inventors want their technologies to be used for the benefit of society. They hope that others will recognize the value of their achievements and build on them to develop new patentable technologies that can further improve the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of freshwater resource management in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.

Unfortunately, for reasons beyond their control, the inventors of these technologies have not been able to take their cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions beyond successful experimentation and would welcome an opportunity to explore commercial partnership opportunities. Driven by the desire to help improve the ecological state of irrigated lands in arid zones, they stand ready to share their knowledge, experience and advice on the practical implementation of these environmentally friendly water-saving technologies.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “if you have one apple and I have one apple, and we exchange these apples, then each of us will have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we will exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas”. That is the value of ideas and that is why we need to encourage opportunities for scientists, inventors and policymakers to exchange their ideas to pave the way for new technological advances.

Our ability to extract moisture from the atmosphere is still in its infancy. However, with the ingenuity of inventors and scientists, and a policy environment that supports them and the commercialization of their outputs, it will be possible to develop efficient and inexpensive ways to mitigate and even eliminate water scarcity and to find other eco-friendly ways to harness nature’s vast resources.

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