Water profile of Turkmenistan

Source: FAO

Geography and Population

caption Map of Turkmenistan. (Source: FAO)

Turkmenistan, located in Central Asia, is bordered in the west by the Caspian Sea, in the northwest by Kazakhstan, in the north and northeast by Uzbekistan, in the southeast by Afghanistan and in the south and southwest by Iran. The total area of the country is 488,100 square kilometers (km2). It formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union in October 1991. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into five vilayats, one of which includes the capital city of Ashkhabad.

The Kara Kum Desert covers 80% of the total area of the country. In the southwest, along the border with Iran, lies the Kopetdag mountain chain with the Shakhshakh peak at 2,912 meters (m) above sea level. The highest point of the country is the Airybaba peak at 3,137 m, in the Kougitantau mountain range in the east on the border with Uzbekistan.

caption Figure 1: Land categories. (Source: FAO)

The cultivable area is estimated at 7 million hectares (ha), or 14% of the total area of the country. In 1994, the total cultivated area was estimated at 1.75 million ha, of which 1.51 million ha consisted of annual crops, and 0.24 million ha of permanent crops, mostly vineyards, pistachio nuts, figs, and olives. In 1994, the cultivated area was divided into: kolkhoz (collective farms) and sovkhoz (state farms) which covered a combined area of 1,596,400 ha; the `land of citizens' on 109,900 ha (this corresponds to gardens and individual plots); and 48,900 ha of private farms owned by 4,500 households. In May 1994, a land reform was approved by the government. This reform should eventually result in the privatization of agricultural land. The sovkhoz and kolkhoz lands are to be distributed to their employees under a lease contract of 99 years. At the end of 1994, about 720,000 ha of this land had already been distributed to some 260,000 farmers (Figure 1).

The total population is estimated at 4.16 million inhabitants (1996), of which 55% is rural. The average population density is about 9 inhabitants/km2. The annual population growth rate was estimated at almost 2% in 1995, compared with 2.5% during the 1980s. The decline has mainly been due to the prevailing difficult post-independence economic situation.

In 1995, the agricultural sector contributed almost 50% to gross domestic product (GDP) and in 1996 it employed about 36% of the total economically active population. Animal husbandry contributes 14% to the gross agricultural production, and crop production contributes 86%, mainly through irrigated crops (95% of the gross crop product).

Climate and Water Resources


The climate of Turkmenistan is subtropical desertic. The average annual precipitation is about 191 millimeters (mm), ranging from less that 80 mm in the northeast to 300 mm in the Kopetdag mountain zone in the southwest. Precipitation occurs during the winter season, mainly between October and April. The average temperature in January is about -4ºC in most of the country, except in the southwest where the climate is milder with an average temperature of 4 degrees Celsius (°C) in the coldest month. In July, average temperatures exceed 30°C throughout the country.

River Basins and Water Resources

caption Figure 2: Internal renewable surface water resources (IRSWR) by major river basin. (Source: FAO)

The river runoff originating in the country is estimated at 1.0 cubic kilometers per year (km3/year) (Figure 2). Several rivers are found in Turkmenistan, most of them flowing into the country from its neighbors.

The agreement among the five Central Asian republics stipulates that on average 22 km3/year are to be reserved for Turkmenistan (of which 0.68 km3/year are internal renewable water resources [IRWR]) and 22 km3/year for Uzbekistan. It has been considered that the latter comes into Turkmenistan before being used downstream in Uzbekistan.

During the Soviet period, water resources sharing among the five Central Asian republics was on the basis of master plans for water resources development in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins. In 1992, with the establishment of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination, the newly independent republics agreed (February 18, 1992) to prepare a regional water strategy, and to continue to respect the existing principles until the adoption of a new water sharing agreement to be proposed by this new water strategy.

caption Table of Renewable Surface Water Resources (RSWR) by major river basin. (Source: FAO)

The part of the Amu Darya flow allocated to Turkmenistan is 50% of the actual river flow at the Kerki gauging station, the other 50% being allocated to Uzbekistan. The Turkmen allocation corresponds to 42.27% of the part of the Amu Darya surface water resources on which agreements have been concluded. The agreements are calculated on the basis of about 67% of the total amount of flow produced in the Amu Darya basin (78.46 km3/year on average). The surface water resources allocated to Turkmenistan are thus calculated every year, depending on the importance of the current flows. On average, it can be considered that the water resources allocated to Turkmenistan in the Amu Darya basin are about 22 km3/year.

As far as the Tedzhen and Atrek waters are concerned, the treaty signed in February 1926 between Iran and Turkmenistan remains in force. This treaty stipulates that Turkmenistan receives each year a quantity equal to 70% of the total Tedzhen average runoff, and 50% of the total Atrek average runoff. This corresponds to an average of 0.75 km3/year for the Tedzhen River and 0.06 km3/year for the Atrek River.

The largest and most important waterway in Turkmenistan is the Kara Kum Canal. This canal was constructed in the 1950s and is the longest canal in the world (some 1,300 km). The canal capacity is estimated at 630 cubic meters per second (m3/s). Its inlet at the Amu Darya River is located just after the river enters Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan. It brings water to Ashkhabad and to the oases in the south.

The renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 3.36 km3/year, of which about 3 km3/year are estimated to be infiltration from rivers, including surface water resources generated in upstream countries. In 1994, the existing equipment enabled a groundwater abstraction of 1.22 km3/year.

The total IRWR are thus estimated at 1.36 km3/year, and the total actual renewable water resources (ARWR) at 24.72 km3/year.

Non-conventional Sources of Water

The volume of treated industrial and domestic wastewater is estimated at 0.025 km3/year. For the period 1990-94, agricultural drainage water was estimated at about 5.4 km3/year on average. Water from both sources is mixed in the collector-drainage canals. About 2.35 km3/year, or 44% of the total, return to rivers, mainly the Amu Darya River. About 2.97 km3/year, or 55% of the total, goes to natural depressions, mainly Lake Sarakamysh in the north of the country on the border with Uzbekistan. The remainder, about 0.08 km3/year (1% of the total), is directly re-used for irrigation.

Lakes and Dams

There are 18 artificial reservoirs with a total capacity of about 2.89 km3: 8 on the Murghab River; 3 on the Tedzhen River; 3 on the Atrek River; and 4 on the Kara Kum Canal. The largest reservoir is the Hauz-Khan Reservoir on the Kara Kum Canal with a total capacity of 0.875 km3. All the reservoirs were been designed and constructed mainly for irrigation purposes, and are affected by heavy siltation.

The gross hydropower potential of the country is estimated at 5.8 gigawatt hours (GWh), while the total installed capacity was about 0.7 GWh in 1993. The construction of the Puli Hatum reservoir on the Tedzhen River on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan has been planned but is awaiting agreement between the two countries. Its total capacity would be 1.3 km3, and it has been designed for flood control, hydropower generation, and flow regulation purposes.

The outflow of drainage water has led to the creation of artificial lakes in natural depressions. The largest one is Lake Sarakamysh with a storage capacity of about 8 km3. A major environmental issue in Turkmenistan is the permanent accumulation of pollutant salt in these lakes, as this leads to the degradation of their flora and fauna.

Water Withdrawal

caption Figure 3: Water withdrawal. (Source: FAO)

In 1994, the total annual water withdrawal was estimated at 23.8 km3, of which 97% was used for agricultural purposes (Figure 3). Recently, there has been a slight fall in the total water withdrawal, mainly because of the adoption of water saving methods in agriculture. The main source of water is surface water. Drainage water from irrigated land is also reused and constitutes another source of water for irrigation. In 1994, 214 million m3 of groundwater was used for domestic purposes, 151 million m3 for agricultural purposes, and 36 million m3 for industry.

Irrigation and Drainage Development

Irrigation Development

Irrigation is the lifeblood of Turkmenistan's economy. In 1975, the total irrigated area was estimated at about 857,000 ha. In 1994 it was 1,744,100 ha, which was 99.4% of the total cultivated area (Figure 4).

caption Figure 4: Evolution of irrigation. (Source: FAO)

Irrigation in Turkmenistan is mainly concentrated in oases, where water is diverted from the Murghab, Atrek, and Tedzhen rivers and from the Kara Kum Canal for the irrigated areas in the south, or from a system of canals which have been built along the Amu Darya River in the north. Considering that a further 609,000 ha are potentially suitable for irrigation development up to 2010, the total potential for irrigation development can be estimated at 2,353,000 ha.

caption Figure 6: Origin of irrigation water. (Source: FAO)

Surface irrigation was the only technique used in the country up to 1992. In 1994, there were 400 ha under micro-irrigation (Figure 5). About 43,600 ha were irrigated with groundwater, while the remaining area was irrigated with surface water, including a small part with collector-drainage water, which is a mixture of agricultural drainage water and wastewater (Figure 6).

caption Figure 7: Typology of irrigation canals. (Source: FAO)

In 1994, the total length of the irrigation network was about 39,131 km. The length of the main canals and inter-farm network was 7,166 km, of which 7.5% consisted of concrete canals and 92.5% of earthen canals. The on-farm network totaled 31,965 km, of which 7.9% consisted of concrete canals, 7.4% of pipes and the remaining 84.7% unlined earthen canals (Figure 7). In 1994, the overall irrigation efficiency, considering losses between the source and the irrigated field, was estimated at 59%.

caption Figure 8: Main irrigated crops. (Source: FAO)

No private irrigation schemes exist in Turkmenistan. All the schemes are managed by a state agency. Most of the schemes are larger than 10,000 ha. Water is allocated to each farm on the basis of standard crop water requirements. When a farm exceeds its allocation, a fine is applied, based on the extra volume of water. In 1995, the rate was manat 0.503/m3, or US$0.2/1000 m3. This measure has been introduced to encourage farmers to reduce water consumption.

caption Figure 9: Drainage techniques. (Source: FAO)

The major irrigated crops are cereals (mainly wheat), cotton, and fodder (Figure 8). Cotton and vegetables are the most important export crops. In 1994, irrigated crop yields were 2.3 tonnes/hectare (t/ha) for cotton; 1.65 t/ha for wheat; 1.78 t/ha for barley; 2.38 t/ha for rice; 8.77 t/ha for melons; and 6.55 t/ha for grapes.

The average cost of irrigation development is estimated at US$4,000-10,000/ha for large-scale surface irrigation schemes using modern technologies, including agricultural infrastructures. If micro-irrigation were to be developed on existing irrigated areas, its estimated implementation cost would be US$3,500-5,000/ha. The annual operation and maintenance (O&M) cost which would enable full cost recovery is estimated at US$250/ha for surface irrigation systems, and at about US$450/ha for pump systems. However, the actual cost has not exceeded US$100/ha in recent years, resulting in poor maintenance of the system. It is estimated that about 653,000 ha of irrigation schemes need rehabilitation.

Waterlogging, Salinity, and Drainage Development

caption Figure 9: Drainage techniques. (Source: FAO)

The water loss from the Kara Kum Canal, whose banks are unprotected, is estimated at 18% of the total flow. This has caused massive waterlogging and salinization of the surrounding land. In 1994, about 652,000 ha, or 37% of the irrigated area, were classed as saline by Central Asian standards (toxic ions exceed 0.5% of total soil weight).

Out of a total irrigated area of 1,744,100 hectares (ha), over 1,222,000 ha require drainage. In 1995, drainage infrastructures had been constructed on about 1,022,126 ha. Approximately 32% is subsurface drainage, mainly on newly reclaimed areas. Surface drainage can be divided into horizontal drainage, on 614,445 ha, and vertical drainage, on 84,719 ha (Figure 9). In total, about 72 million m3 of water is pumped by vertical drainage, and discharged into the collector-drainage canals. The total length of the collector-drainage network is estimated at 35 km at on-farm level and 140 km at inter-farm level.

Institutional Environment

The Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) is in charge of water resources research, planning, development, and distribution. It also undertakes the construction, operation, and maintenance of the irrigation and drainage networks at inter-farm level. Water allocations are regularly reduced in order to promote savings and to satisfy the demand from new users and to increase the water flow to the Aral Sea. The institutional structure of water management follows various hierarchical levels: state, vilayat, district, farm (or Water User Associations [WUA]). The first three come under the MWR and are responsible for the distribution and delivery of water up to the farm inlet, for assistance to the water users in implementing modern technologies, and for the control of water use and water quality. The special reclamation services, at all levels, are also the responsibility of the MWR. They monitor groundwater level, drainage discharge, and soil salinity, and plan measures for the maintenance and improvement of soil conditions, including leaching, repair, and cleaning of collector-drainage network, rehabilitation, etc.

The `Water Code of Turkmenistan', was issued on December 27, 1972. This code is currently under review, and new water legislation is planned for the near future.

The Ministry of Agriculture is in charge of agricultural research and extension, land reclamation, and agricultural development at farm level, and the operation and maintenance of the irrigation network at farm level.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is responsible for domestic water supply and wastewater treatment.

Turkmenistan is a member of IFAS, ICWC, and the Amu Darya River BWO.

Trends in Water Resources Management

Increasing food production is one of the major goals of the national agricultural policy. Irrigation development and agricultural intensification have to be achieved in a general context of limited water resources. Increased reuse of wastewater and of agricultural drainage water is seen as one of the solutions for increasing the water availability needed to enable further irrigation expansion. At the same time, research is being carried out on water saving techniques, and new measures are expected to be adopted on a large scale to increase irrigation efficiency. Rehabilitation of drainage and irrigation networks is also envisaged to reduce water losses and to limit the expansion of salinization.

All these measures have been proposed in the national water strategy, part of the regional water strategy. They should make it possible to contain the irrigation water withdrawal at around 25 km3/year between 2000 and 2010, compared with 23.2 km3/year in 1994, while the irrigated area is expected to increase from 1,744,100 hectares (ha) in 1994 to 2,353,000 ha in 2010.

Environmental issues are particularly acute in Turkmenistan. Water in the rivers and in the drainage networks is of very poor quality, containing high concentrations of salts and pesticides coming from upstream countries. This also affects the Aral Sea area where some of the main collector-drainage canals discharge. A trans-desert collector running for a total length of about 800 km from the northeast to the Caspian Sea in the far west is under construction. It is intended to collect the agricultural drainage waters from the Murghab, the Tedzhen oases, and from the other irrigated areas located along the Kara Kum Canal.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Food and Agriculture Organization should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2006). Water profile of Turkmenistan. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/157004


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