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Sustainable EU support for Turkmenistan’s Desert Communities

Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus development solutions and restoring desert ecosystems in rural Turkmenistan


The traditional way of living has not been changed. The breeding is taken over from generation to generation. This is what we can and love to do”

— Saparmurad Mukhiyev, Local farmer

The silk road may seem like a relic of times past, but in the deserts of Turkmenistan structures once built for travelers called ‘sardobs’ are still used as water sources for farmers and their livestock. The term sardob comes from the combination of Persian words for ‘cold’ and ‘water’ and in a country where 80% of its territory is now desert, maintaining these structures could be a key element of sustainable rural livelihoods. Half of the population of Turkmenistan live in rural areas and depend on increasingly scarce water sources and arable land. Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.

Temporary sheprds camp

Climate change directly affects the reduction of water resources, which in turn can lead to a reduction in the food supply and degradation of pastures”

— Batyr Kurbanov, the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC), project consultant

Unfortunately, many of these sardobs are languishing unused. Some are broken, while others are in isolated areas without protective and warm shepherd huts. Municipalities often lack the resources to restore them alone. The host of challenges that sardob repair represents has led many farmers to consider expensive new well exploration instead.


The farmers are ready to build the wells by collective efforts; however, we have no clue about the coordinates of groundwater. We simply cannot waste resources and digging the wells in the dessert by our guess”

— Tachmukhamet Kakaev, director of livestock farm

Maintaining resilient sources of water and pastureland is a necessity for sustaining this region’s farming traditions. Livestock breeding has been part of Garagum Gengeshlik communities in the Dashoguz region for generations: while men typically tend their herds of sheep and camels, economic opportunities for rural women are limited to the money they can make in city markets from homemade wool or milk products. If farmers cannot maintain their herds because over-used pastures are becoming deserts and water is scarce, the whole community will suffer.

In Garagum Gengeshlik, the remoteness of Esenaman pastures – and their lack of water sources – mean that about 50,000 hectares of viable grazing land have been sitting unused. Farmers wanted to expand their herds to increase their incomes, but needed land with access to water. Old sardobs, which collect and store rainwater, were therefore treasure chests waiting to be dug up. The restoration of sardobs near the livestock farm Garagum gave farmers access to these previously-abandoned pastures and the chance to grow their business – just one example of the opportunity these structures hold for enriching all aspects of rural lives in Turkmenistan.

Reconstruction of sardobs in remote areas of Turkmenistan

Through the project “Reconstruction of sardobs in remote areas of Turkmenistan,” a combination of water-energy-food (WEF) Nexus approaches and local knowledge fully addressed the electricity, water, ecosystem and livelihood needs of farmers and their families.

This sustainable WEF Nexus solution was forged through a cooperation between the European Union (EU), the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC)[1], the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)[2] and locals in Garagum Gengeshlik – and could become a model for other communities in the region facing similar challenges.

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Cecilia Vey

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