The Amu Darya is the largest river in Turkmenistan and Central Asia. It is the most significant source of water for irrigation in the region. In the recent past, the Amu Darya flowed into the Aral Sea. At the moment, its water is almost completely used for agricultural needs, which has led to the drying up of the Aral Sea.
The ancient Greeks called this river Ôxos (Ὦξος), which is clearly related to the name of its largest tributary, Vakhsh. In Indian Sanskrit texts it is referred to as Vakṣu (वक्षु). In Avestan texts, the Amu Darya is found under the names Yakhsha/Vakhsha, as well as Yakhsha Arta (“upper Yakhsha”). The lower Yakhsha, apparently, was the Syr Darya – the second largest river in Central Asia.
It is believed that the modern name of the river comes from the medieval city of Amul (now Turkmenabad), which is located today in Turkmenistan. Daria is a Persian word meaning “lake”. In medieval Arabic sources, the river is often found under the name Jeyhun (Arabic: جَـيْـحُـوْن). It comes from Gihon, the biblical name for one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden.
The Amu Darya is formed as a result of the confluence of the Pyanj and Vakhsh rivers. In the lower reaches it forms a delta. During floods, the river reaches the remnants of the Aral Sea, into which it flowed before the active development of irrigation in the region. It’s total length according to various estimates reaches 2 400 kilometers (1 500 mi) and its drainage basin area is 534 739 square kilometers (206 464 sq mi).
It should be noted that throughout history the Amu Darya did not always reach the Aral Sea. As a result of the drying up of the Aral Sea, the ruins of ancient cities that had been under water for a long time were discovered. In certain periods, there was a branch of the river called Uzboy, which stretched through the Karakum desert towards the Caspian Sea.
The river is fed mainly by melted snow and glacial waters, so maximum flows are observed in the summer, and the lowest in January – February. Flowing across the plain, from Kerki to Nukus, the Amu Darya loses most of its flow to evaporation, infiltration and irrigation. In terms of turbidity, the Amu Darya ranks first in Central Asia and one of the first places in the world.
The main flow of the Amu Darya is formed in the territory of Tajikistan (80%) and partly in Northern Afghanistan. Then the river flows along the border of Afghanistan with Uzbekistan, crosses Turkmenistan, then flows along the Turkmen-Uzbek border, again returning to Uzbekistan. There are four main versions of where the source of the Amu Darya is located:
- The Pamir River, which flows from Lake Zorkul in the Pamir Mountains (ancient Mount Imeon). It flows west to Qila-e-Pyanj, where it flows into the Wakhan River, forming the Pyanj River.
- The Sarhad River or Little Pamir, flowing through the Little Pamir in the upper part of the Wakhan Corridor.
- Lake Chamaktin, from which flows the Aksu River, which in turn becomes the Murghab River and then the Bartang River and which eventually joins the Panj-Oxus branch.
- Ice cave at the end of the Wakhjir Valley, in the Wakhan Corridor, in the Pamir Mountains, near the border with Pakistan.
Flora and fauna
The valley and delta of the Amu Darya are characterized by a tugai landscape. Currently, in the tugai of the lower reaches of the Amu Darya, there are 61 species of tugai plants. Of these, the main group of tugai plants includes turanga, willow (5 species), elk (1 species), comb, chingil, clematis, swallowtail, and licorice.
The shrub zone of tugai is represented mainly by species associated with constant ground moisture and the salinization process. These are comb grass, azhiryk, quinoa, parnofolia, kermek, akbash, karabarak and various solyanka.
In the waters of the Amu Darya there are balding fish, asp, Aral barbel, catfish, bream, sabrefish, silverfish, grass carp, and silver carp. The river is the only habitat of the endemic Amu Darya shovelnose, which is on the verge of extinction. In the 20th century, invasive species appeared in the river, such as Gambusia, which was introduced here to combat the malaria mosquito.
The fauna of the Amu Darya floodplain is also very diverse. The reptiles that reign in the sandy desert are represented here by only 5 species. But the dominance of birds is undeniable: 87 nesting species, 4 of which are listed in the Red Book of Turkmenistan (1985). The world of mammals is represented here quite widely – 21 species are recorded in the floodplain forests, of which 8 are included in the International Red List (IUCN).