Bonding for change and functionality: water users of Turkmenistan

Water reservoir in Nohur pilot area / UNDP Turkmenistan

How much would you charge a neighbour for access to water? How many volunteers can you gather to clean up a dam? Who will get access to the biggest water well in the middle of the desert?


  • Sixty members of the “Garawul” Water Users Group (WUG) (36 women and 24 men) worked during 7 days on fixing of several kilometers of drip irrigation systems in Nohur pilot area. The local residents covered the cost of the work of 12, 600 Manats (USD 3, 600).
  • AF Project supplied construction materials and helped in building a demonstration greenhouse in Bokurdak. In 2015, local farmers produced around 1000 kg of cucumbers in the sandy soil conditions.

These are the questions on the daily agenda of the farmers, land lease holders, and cattle breeders of the three pilot areas of the UNDP/Adaptation Fund project “Addressing Climate Change Risks to Farming Systems in Turkmenistan at National and Community Level” in Nohur, Sakarchage and Karakum.

In the country where about 50% of the population are employed in agriculture and cattle breeding[1], the issues of sustainable land use practices are the primary, but not the only one. Availability and accessibility of water is the issue that makes some give up on farming or cattle and move with another available employment option.




The livelihood of farmers in Turkmenistan consists of the cotton and wheat growing, which means that the water is needed in certain amounts and in certain season. Availability of water depends on the time of the year and the weather conditions. The dryer the year, the less rainfall, the less water is accumulated for irrigation.

"When you plant cotton seeds, the first irrigation comes immediately after 60 days. If you wait more cotton seeds will dry out. The second watering comes in 25 days after the first one. And this is a must because otherwise all your cotton will dry out and die. If the year is rainy and we are planting cotton, the seeds will rotten in the land, because too much watering is not good either. Therefore, my income really depends on how much water we get and if the year is dry or wet," explains land lease holder, Tuvak.

The water for Mary region comes from the Karakum River, which takes its origin from the Amudarya River where the water intake is facilitated by the pumps. When the Karakum River reaches Mary, the water is distributed through the channel system to the agricultural areas of the region, such as Sakarchaga. The distribution of the water for irrigation in Mary is organized by the schedule provided by the local state regulatory body.

Currently, the issues of the water use for irrigation in Turkmenistan are regulated by the Water Code adopted in 2004 but highly depend on community bond, because the current Water Code does not regulate equal distribution of water, nor it legalizes the informal relations among water users. Thus, in a highly competitive farming regions like Sakarchaga social cohesion cannot replace the required legal base for water regulation in the area. As a result, those whose fields are located in the close proximity to the water sources benefit more from it and do not consider the need for equal distribution with the fields located in remote areas.

Observing the challenges and the needs of the local beneficiaries, UNDP/AF experts developed a list of recommendations for amendment of the Water Code, which is now under consideration of the Parliament of Turkmenistan. Continuous work on climate change risks management and introduction of the sustainable land use practices resulted in identifying the key challenges in water distribution and use in the three pilot regions of Nohur, Karakum and Sakarchage. Addressing the current situation with availability of water, social organization of the local communities and the purpose of water use (farming, cattle breeding), the new Water Code will provide functionality to the existing intra-communal relations that already help regulate the use of water.

The example of a strong social cohesion is the Nohur pilot area of UNDP/AF project. Local residents live remotely from the city and other towns around. Historically, residents of Nohur preserved social bond which is manifested in the way the community distributes the common pool resources and the benefits from the income sources. Residents appoint miraps who manage water distribution from springs and dams. Mirap should be an honest and fair person, who knows people well.

"We have no issues with drinking water. However, water for irigation is hard to provide as it depends on how much rain and snow we get, which means we need to accumulate water. The water is accumulated in the dams (snow and rain fall), from springs and boreholes. In 2008, within UNDP's SLM project, we have built 5 boreholes, each costs USD 25000. One borehole covers 20 ha (0.2 sq km) of land. Our community is organized in a way that we get together to discuss where we need to put a new dam or a borehole, and how to distribute the water and the harvest from the irrigated fields. We have shared the cost of constructing new water dripping irrigation system for the new farming fields, but we cannot cover the cost of constructing a new borehole," explains Kurban, local project coordinator in Nohur.

Empowering local communities to act as a legal entity to create new opportunities in diversifying sources of funding for construction of the water wells and others, is one of the main goals of the proposed amendments to the Water Code. The amendments foresee legalizing water users groups and providing them with an opportunity to have a bank account and be able to raise funds for the new projects.


Cattle breeders

Photo: New water well constructed in Karakum project area / UNDP Turkmenistan 

Karakum area community traditionally consists of cattle breeders/shepherds who use the desert pastures. Not surprisingly, water accessibility is also a pressing issue in the desert. One million hectares (10 000 sq km) is the territory of the Karakum farmers union. Based on the distribution and the number of cattle, the territory is divided into two farms. Those farms assign grazing areas and water wells after cattle breeders. The water wells are different in their size and the volume of water. Who gets what well is fairly decided depending on the number of cattle a shepherd has. One well is assigned to one shepherd.

"We are all cattle breeders and spend a lot of time in the desert. Sometimes, there are situations when breeders need to help each other and share the well, but that cannot last for too long, because water is so scarce. Therefore, we are all willing to contribute to make sure that everyone has water and that our animals are safe every year no matter how weather conditions change," concludes Kakabay.

At the moment, the water wells in Karakum region are maintained by the cattle breeders for their own resources, which are quite limited both in capital and human resources. UNDP/AF project has reconstructed 15 and constructed 13 new wells, but that is only about 10% of the total approximately 150 wells on the territory of 1 mln ha (10 000 sq km). Upon legalization of the water users group, cattle breeders will be able to contribute resources to the joint fund and conduct maintenance of the water wells.



[1] Marshall Cavendish, World and Its Peoples, Volume 1, Turkmenistan, New York 2006, p. 691



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