Sustainable living in the heart of the desert

man pointing at desert
In Karakum, Turkmenistan, a pilot project is using adaptation techniques to protect villages from the encroaching desert. Photo: UNDP Turkmenistan

The desert does not stay put in Turkmenistan. The dunes of the Karakum Desert are expanding by 1 to 1.5 meters a year, overtaking arable land, making roads impassable and forcing area residents to move their homes.

A changing climate is partly to blame, but so are unsustainable land use practices. Many residents earn their living as shepherds, and given the region’s limited water resources, grazing is concentrated around wells. The resulting overgrazing strips the land of important plants and nutrients and makes it susceptible to desertification. 

With the desert sands moving, people need to move their houses so they’re not under the dunes. “About nine years ago, the village was located ten meters to the south from where it is now. My own house used to be closer to the desert,” says Kakabay Baysahedov, a UNDP representative from the region.

Highlights

  • Sand fixation was implemented on 10 hectares of community land, helping to keep village roads clear and allowing residents to remain in their current homes.
  • Seven new wells were constructed, six existing wells were renovated, and 15 sardob reservoirs were built, providing an additional 125,310 m3 of water for drinking and livestock, increasing the livestock population by 1,265 cows, and irrigating an additional 6,240 hectares of land to be used for breeding cattle.
  • A newly constructed greenhouse yielded 1.2 tons of cucumbers, saving community members some US$1,000
  • Since they began in 2013, some 2,000 residents have benefited.

In 2012, UNDP, with support from the Adaptation Fund, joined with Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Nature Protection and affected communities from the Karakum region to address the manmade factors contributing to desertification and help communities adapt to the changing climate.

In large part, this new initiative relied on an old technology—sand fixation. This involves planting reeds and saxaul (a type of shrub) in the sand, which helps to fix the sand in place. Saxaul was planted on 10 hectares of community land, and its success was soon evident. The village roads were kept clear of the encroaching desert and residents were no longer forced to move.

“[Sand fixation] is an old tradition of the Turkmen nation,” continues Kakabay.  

To address land degradation, seven new wells were constructed and six existing wells were renovated, which increased the amount of available water and helped expand pastureland. 15 sardobs (concrete-lined, covered water reservoirs built into the ground) were also built to hold drinking water. Altogether, the water improvements benefitted some 632 families, providing an additional 125,310 m3 of water for drinking and livestock, increasing the livestock population by 1,265 cows, and irrigating an additional 6,240 hectares of land to be used for breeding cattle.  

To enhance climate-resilient farming practices, the project introduced community members to new methods for maintaining soil moisture, as well as new types of fertilizers (such as bio-humus and compost) that increase the efficiency of water irrigation, soil fertility and crop productivity. Since they began in 2013, some 2,000 residents have benefited.

“We learned local needs assessment techniques,” says Velmurat Akkoshekov, a shepherd who attended the trainings. “[We] also identified the most relevant, environmentally and economically sound adaptation measures that can be implemented in our region.”

The project also supported the construction of a greenhouse, with local residents contributing to its maintenance as well as using it to learn about cultivation techniques. This year, the first harvest from the greenhouse yielded 1.2 tons of cucumbers—vegetables like cucumbers are usually imported into the community, and the measure saved community members some US$1,000. Community members now plan to grow tomatoes and green peppers in the greenhouses and to share their seeds with neighboring communities.

By using special techniques to “fix” the sand and creating “belts” of trees and plants, the villages are now protected from moving sands and can live more stable lives. 

“We now have more houses in the villages, and bigger settlements”, says Murat Ovezov, the head of a local farmers union in the Darvaza region. “People can have their families in the same place, not scattered around Karakum.”

80% of Turkmenistan is desert, and other parts of the country face similar issues. While Karakum is the pilot area, the project expects to expand to other regions as UNDP provides project ownership to the local people.

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