We need sustainable cities in Turkmenistan – so we created a roadmap to get there

June 17, 2019

Photo: UNDP Turkmenistan/Claire Ladavicius

No city in the world has achieved full sustainability yet – that is, a zero carbon emission footprint on the planet’s wellbeing. There is, however, a blueprint we could learn from - a district of Abu-Dhabi called Masdar City.

Regional hubs of automation software giants and other technology companies who want to position themselves as leaders in innovation have made Maasdar home, with its LEEDs-certified buildings (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), an autonomous driving electric bus and water supplied from energy efficient reverse osmosis desalination plant fed by solar panels.

The city offers zero corporate tax rate to offset the cost of building these premises and relocating highly paid staff to Maasdar. Despite that, the resulting cost of living is the highest in the world. It makes one wonder if such technological advancement is only possible for the privileged 40,000-50,000 residents living here.

Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. If Maasdar is a far-reaching dream for many, then how do we bridge the gap?

We need to think of smaller steps. In 1972, 95 percent of all Denmark’s energy needs (which is, population-wise, a country the size of Turkmenistan) were covered by fossil fuel. Thanks to a concerted policy of the past 40 years, the city is now firmly on a path to switching to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050. Norway already powers 99 percent of households from such sources.

In Denmark, the cost of energy to households is the highest in the world and growing (with 35 to 50 percent of that cost being a fossil-fuel energy tax). The cost of owning a car is the highest too: the new car tax in Denmark is 200 percent of the selling cost. Electric vehicles have until recently been exempt from this tax, and this made Denmark the number 2 in the European Union electric vehicle market (after Norway).

These policies and tax regimes didn’t emerge overnight – they took several decades to crystallize and garner public acceptance and support. However, the population knew the change was imminent. Today, most support these policies because they want their grand-grand children to enjoy the planet we know of today.

What about sustainability in Central Asia?

This is a region where the Aral Sea has ceased to exist over the past 60 years due to the Soviet Union’s irresponsible agricultural policies . So it is clear that even a middle-income GDP-per-capita country like Turkmenistan has to have a sustainability roadmap.

We need to begin with intermediate steps, such as introducing an all-LED street lighting standard, automated time-of-the-day electric metering requirement (for consumers and industry alike), and mandatory automated water and heat-metering.

A more ambitious intervention would include a policy of gradual increase in the cost of energy to the population, to enable the switch from old technology incandescent light bulbs (which waste more than 90 percent of energy) to LEDs (which only waste about 7 percent).

The next generation of desalination plants should be required to be fed only by renewable energy sources, and a green tariff introduced to stimulate installation of renewable technologies in remote off-the-grid locations for farmers and border guard units.

In the more advanced stages, policy should move to stimulate new energy generation from renewable sources only, while the country’s gas could be exported for boosting revenue.

It’s not unimaginable that new businesses will be attracted with zero-tax rates, and hi-tech industrial innovation and software outsourcing will emerge. So Turkmenistan may want to invest more in education to support the stable labour supply to these hubs. 

How do you make the cultural shift from fossil to solar?

Policy changes are not enough. If we want these interventions to be successful, the population has to embrace new modes of transportation – such as cycling and using e-scooters.

Authorities must make that change safe and seamless (more convenient bus routes and frequency responsive to the pulse of the city and traffic flow directions).

Public awareness campaigns will help people shift to a new way of operating. While the cost of replacing the light bulb will increase, they will see that it’s a one-time investment only, since LEDs work for over 5 to 15 years. Sorting household waste will come with no second thought, alongside the country’s upgrade of its collection and sorting infrastructure.

Ashgabat and Avaza: Two new pilots for sustainability

At UNDP in Turkmenistan, we are currently at work to finalize new bus routes and time-tables on bus stops, smart-phone apps with automatic route updates, and bus and bicycle transfer route planners.

Here are three tangible results we’re expecting in the next 5 years:

1.       More sustainable transport infrastructure. In Ashgabat, bus routes will be rerouted and dedicated and safe bicycle routes with public bike-parking and renting infrastructure will be installed. E-vehicle charging stations will be installed in Avaza, along with several electric taxis.

2.       A gradual and visible switch to LED lights across Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi. The change will be felt on the store shelves across the cities as well, with no more incandescent light bulbs being sold.

3.       A separate waste collection will become a reality in the capital. The exact extent of that change will depend on the availability of financing (both public and private) of the required sorting and recycling infrastructure.

Stay tuned for more updates as we work to implement these changes.

Interested in cities? Check out this interview about smart cities in Turkmenistan or this piece on our City Experiment Fund.