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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.

Sadorb Youtube video

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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), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and locals in Garagum Gengeshlik – and could become a model for other communities in the region facing similar challenges.


The EU promotes the Nexus approach to managing interlinked water-energy-food resources as a way to increase efficiency, reduce trade-offs, build synergies and improve governance while protecting ecosystems. And I am very pleased and excited about the work we do with our partners in Central Asia to develop concrete Nexus solutions to the benefit of local people"

Photo Johannes Stenbaek Madsen p9j7asxdb29vaevrgwz3f4skqyi3dk6y4rlncli940 — Johannes Stenbaek Madsen, Head of Cooperation, EU Delegation to Kazakhstan

The project helped to reduce land degradation. Encroaching desertification has already had devastating effects on communities in the Aral Sea basin and must be fought at every turn by preventing overgrazing. The restored sardobs are in fresh pasture lands, allowing previously used fields equivalent to an area twice the size Turkmenistan’s largest city, Ashgabat, to recover. Using WEF Nexus approaches in Garagum helped farmers maintain their livelihoods while also protecting vulnerable ecosystems.

Adzhi Gui area

The replication potential of this model is promising, since about 80% of the territory of Turkmenistan is covered with desert and similar landscapes are also common in other Central Asian countries"

— Batyr Kurbanov, CAREC project consultant
Solar panels 1

The implementation of these projects will contribute to the flooding of additional pasture areas, thereby reducing the burden of degraded pasture plots. Restored sardobs during the rainy seasons will be able to provide water for about 4 herds, this is more than 2,400 sheep. Shepherds with their families will be able to move to these territories and stay here for two seasons

— Saparmurat Mukhanov, a local specialist at Garagum livestock farm.
Sardob scheme 2

The restoration of Sardobs in Garagum combine ancestral experience in efficient resource use with modern technologies, and the success in the deserts of one small pocket of northern Turkmenistan could inspire region-wide restoration initiatives.

This is only a first glance at what WEF Nexus solutions can bring to Central Asia. The Central Asia Nexus Dialogue Project will soon break ground on additional projects across the region. Keep checking the Nexus Resource Platform for the latest news and activities from Central Asia.

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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