Home | TheWaterBlog

TheWaterBlog: If you want to share unique images and observations in this section, or would like to know about syndicating these posts, send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!


Irrigation Poverty in Turkmenistan 

By Frank van Steenbergen and Letty Fajardo Vera 
May 22, 2020

Irrigation should bring wealth, not poverty. But in Turkmenistan it brings poverty and hardship. However, this is not necessary and can be changed. 

Turkmenistan is one of the most reclusive countries. With it comes an autocratic leader and a regime where there is little room for discussion, as it forecloses  opportunities to do things better and make life more amenable. 

In Turkmenistan, irrigation is a life line as little grows without it in the Central Asia Desert. There is a long history of using water from the Amu Daya river, but until 70 years ago this was limited. Yet in Soviet times the lifeline expanded to a virtual blood system of irrigation canals – producing predominantly wheat and cotton. The central artery is the Karakum Canal, one of the world’s largest, serving one million hectares. 

The production system also more or less dates from the Soviet times. What used to be state farms are now local peasant associations (daikhan berrleshik). Beyond the surface, little has changed. Farmers are lease-holders, but are told by the daikhan what to grow. Depending on the season, this is either wheat or cotton. Farmers have to reach a production quota for each crop and have to sell their crop against a fixed price. Not meeting the quota imposes a heavy fine on farmers – in the order of 80 USD per ton not produced, plus one may lose the lease on the land. The fixed price they receive for the crop is low. Basic inputs are expensive and sometimes hard to get.  This leaves very little room to earn income and is a reason that farming in the canal areas in Turkmenistan is sometimes equated with serfdom. It has translated into widespread rural poverty in main breadbasket areas such as Mary – where most people do not have the income to purchase meat, eggs or other items, outside of the restricted government food shops. 

Moreover, the farm work is very hard, especially during the cotton harvest – with tremendous heat, high humidity and clouds of mosquitos. The hard labour in cotton picking befalls largely on women. In addition, forced labour by public sector staff – such as teachers and underemployed factory workers – is recruited. All this brings inordinate hardship and exploitation, one reason that cotton from Turkmenistan – which is of excellent quality otherwise – is now boycotted by several brands. 

Yet there is a way around this through better water management. If each daikhan  would have its own water allocation, it could manage its each own allocated quantum of water  judiciously. It could adjust irrigation schedules and water duties and do more precise and appropriate  irrigation. It would then no longer overuse water on the allocated land. Experience from elsewhere shows that reducing overirrigation is the best and fastest way to increase production. The signs of such poor irrigation management are everywhere to see in Turkmenistan’s irrigation system, in the form of land that is waterlogged and salinized. In many canal areas the root zone is heavily saturated, making it difficult for plants to grow. White salt crusts form on the surface, as the water in the rootzone evaporates in the inclement weather to the surface, leaving the salts in the water behind at the surface. Apart from signs of waterlogging throughout the irrigation system, there are entire areas that have turned into white salty marsh or ‘dead’ land, such as Dashoguz, because of the seepage from excessive and inconsiderate irrigation. 

In recent years the Government of Turkmenistan has opened up, by experimenting with farmer-led Water Users Associations, among other ways. There is a strong case to change the way water is managed in the irrigation system of Turkmenistan by giving farmers more control over how the water supplied to each daikhan is used efficiently.  This would free up water that could be used on the existing irrigated land or an adjacent land. In most areas there is much land available. 

With the water that is saved vegetables could be grown that have an eager market in the growing cities of the country. There is a provision for farmers to grow vegetables on 30% of their land. This makes a lot of sense as it is a key money spinner, and very much necessary because the production quota of wheat and cotton leaves farmers with very little cash income. Moreover, domestic production of vegetables has ready markets and reduces the need of importing the perishables from neighbouring countries. At present Turkmenistan is still importing most of its greens and losing income on this. This need not be the case. At the same time, the quota systems should be relaxed, and the prices offered to farmers improved, so as to reflect the real value of the crops rather than the complexities of the management system.

  • Boiling slowly

    Boiling slowlyBy Frank and Roelien van SteenbergenMay 19, 2020Postcard from Noord Brabant, the Netherlands:Coming back on a  dry sunny day, we noticed how the canals were steaming. They seem to breathe water clouds all along their route.Evaporation is a special thing. Whereas it is at the 100 degrees Celsius boiling point that all water inevitably is moved from liquid to vapor state, water turns ...

    Read more

  • More crop per drop: Farmer-learning and the promise of improved water use in agriculture

    More crop per drop: Farmer-learning and the promise of improved water use in agriculture By Frank van Steenbergen and Petra SchmitterMay 04, 2020(Image Source: Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI)It has been said many times that there is very little irrigation development in Africa, that there is little water storage per head of population, that this adds up to high vulnerability to droughts.  This is ...

    Read more

  • Eden Toxic

    Eden Toxic Postcard from Koga, Amhara, Ethiopiaby Frank van SteenbergenApril 23, 2020Postcard from Koga – in Amhara Ethiopia what looks like a lush little mini-Eden, is in fact far from it. What we cannot see in the picture is the smell – the stale heavy smell, the air carelessly poisoned by pesticide sprayed indiscriminately. This uncontrolled use of pesticide is repeated all over the count...

    Read more

  • Symbiosis: Pastoralists and Farmers in Balochistan

    Symbiosis: Pastoralists and Farmers in Balochistanby Allah Bakhsh and Frank van SteenbergenApril 21, 2020There is a narrative that the competition between pastoralist and farmers in arid areas is a sure route to conflict, and there are many examples that illustrate this – from Darfur in Sudan to Afar and Issa in Ethiopia. Yet this need not be so. Relations between pastoralist and farmers can be ...

    Read more

  • Lockdowns in rural Pakistan – What to do

    Lockdowns in rural Pakistan – what to doBy Karim NawazApril 20, 2020 Many parts of Pakistan are in lockdown, as part of the nationwide measures to contain the Corona virus.  People have been asked to remain in self- isolation. The situation in rural areas is different from urban areas as the population is less dense and settlements are scattered. The busiest places in rural areas are tea shops...

    Read more

  • Postcard from the Beja, Akla Almahata, Eastern Sudan: Health, Water, Education, Work

    Postcard from the Beja, Akla Almahata, Eastern Sudan: Health, Water, Education, Workby Letty Fajardo Vera, Ahmed Adalbagi and Ali M.A. ElhajMarch 10, 2020They are an ancient people, mentioned in Roman scriptures and Axumite documents. The Beja have been living in the land between the Nile and the Red Sea for centuries. An important Beja community is located in eastern Sudan at Gash basin in Kassal...

    Read more

  • The Ibb Water Supply Miracle of Resilience

    The Ibb Water Supply Miracle of Resilienceby Frank van Steenbergen March 10, 2020 It achieves nearly full recovery on customer bills, has in the last three years been able to expand the volume of water produced and has increased customer connections for water supply and sanitation by 21% and 17% respectively--- and all of this while the country is at war.This is the recent history of the Ibb Wat...

    Read more

  • Effect of dam construction on underground flows in Jamshoro, Pakistan

    Effect of dam construction on underground flows in Jamshoro, Pakistanby Abdul Ghani Soomro and Anila Hameem MemonFebruary 12, 2020Darawat Dam is a concrete gravity dam developed across the Nai (spate) Baran River near Village of Jhangri in Jamshoro district of Sindh, Pakistan. It took three years for construction from March 2010 to March 2013. The dam is 250 metres (820 ft) in length and 43 metre...

    Read more

  • Health Gardens

    Health gardens by Letty Fajardo Vera and Frank van SteenbergenJanuary 15, 2020Whatever progress happens on the surface, statistics are harrowing. Ethiopia is still an epicentre of malnutrition.  Though figures have improved over the last 15 years, UNICEF Global Databases on Infant and Young Child Feeding show that about 38% and 10% of Ethiopian children under five years of age are stunted and wa...

    Read more

  • Broody: the Essential Art of Hatching

    Broody: the Essential Art of Hatching by Frank van Steenbergen and Reinier VeldmanJanuary 13, 2020'Hazol' hatching pans developed in Bangladesh (left), adapted to Ethiopian conditions (right)The difference a village chicken can make to the life of a poor woman is amazing. A safe source of income, independent capital asset, universal delicacy, main source of protein, eggs ranks high in the list of...

    Read more