A Mother, A Teacher, A Trailblazer: Raising the Status of Water Issues and Women in Turkmenistan

The Murgab River’s water diverted through a canal in the city of Mary, Turkmenistan (Photo: Petro Kotzé)

“In many cases, women here are homemakers,” says Lyale Orazova, talking about her homeland, Turkmenistan. “Since a woman gives birth to her children, she is responsible for teaching them the ways of our people. It’s the women who teach children that water is special, that it must be valued, and that they need to take care of it. My mother taught me that and I am teaching it to my daughter,” she says.

Lyale is an expert in the processing and cleaning of industrial drainage water and the Head of the Mary branch of the Union of Women of Turkmenistan, which promotes the role of women in social, political and cultural life. Lyale was also elected a member of the recently established Small Basin Council for the Murgab River, as part of USAID’s Smart Waters project.

The Small Basin Council is the first platform in the country that enables representatives from different agencies, ministries and community members like farmers and business people to discuss water management issues together. The aim of the Small Basin Council is to foster collaboration to find the best solutions to water-related problems.

The Smart Waters project aims to introduce the principles of Integrated Water Resources Management which promote the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources. This approach prioritizes economic benefits, social and environmental impact to ensure sustainability of the ecosystem.

The Small Basin Council of the Murgab River is one of 13 that have been established by the Smart Waters project across the Central Asian region and neighboring Afghanistan. Like the Murgab, numerous rivers – more than 200 – are shared by the countries of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Since integrated basin planning is not widely implemented here, rivers are often at the mercy of more than one governing body and multiple sets of laws.

This results in serious water management challenges. For example, large amounts of water are wasted and the water quality in many of the basins is declining.

The Murgab River is a case in point. Flowing through the territory of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, it is the second largest river in Turkmenistan. Here, the water from the Murgab is shared between seven etraps (districts). The river’s water is mainly used for irrigation and the basin supports about 126,000 Turkmen. For her whole life, Lyale has been one of them.

“I swam in the Murgab often when I was growing up,” Lyale says. “I remember the water being so clean, we used to drink straight from the river.” Today, it’s no longer possible. “This is exactly the kind of issue that we are looking at,” she says, referring to their work on the Small Basin Council.

The Small Basin Council is an example of the practical application of one of the central pillars of integrated water resources management – namely that water development and management should include users, planners and policy makers at all levels. It also recognizes the importance of women as central players in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. Due to her position in the union, Lyale now gives a voice to thousands of Turkmen women represented by the union.

Lyale says she feels women’s participation in forums like the Small Basin Council raises their profiles in society. “It shows we have very educated and active women, who can be involved in such issues,” she says. She also shares the information from the Small Basin Council with other women since she believes it increases their knowledge of water management issues and ability to contribute to solutions.

The impact of the Small Basin Council’s work is showing. When it was first established, the members visited the seven etraps through which the Murgab flows. Water users in downstream etraps told Small Basin Council members about their water scarcity issues, while users in upstream etraps shared that they did not know about the water shortages experienced downstream, so they had no reason to ration their use of water.

The problems experienced by water users in downstream etraps were raised in one of the first Small Basin Council meetings. As a result, the Small Basin Council decided to install automated water measurement devices along the river with the support of USAID’s Smart Waters project. This information will enable decision makers to allocate water fairly to all users along the river. By listening to water users’ challenges, and incorporating them into basin management decisions, the Small Basin Council gives a voice to water users throughout the basin.

Lyale says the first person to learn about what they achieved in the Small Basin Council is her own daughter. “She is my best friend, so I tell her everything,” she says proudly. It’s perhaps of little surprise that although her daughter does not swim in the river anymore, like her mother did, she is showing a keen interest in water issues.

This is part of the reason why Lyale continues her work on the Small Basin Council. “I would like to help achieve sufficient water provisions for everyone along the Murgab. With enough water, we will have fruitful lands, high yields and sufficient crops so everyone can be happy.”

The USAID’s Smart Waters project helps bring the countries in Central Asia together with Afghanistan by creating a network of like-minded water management specialists and policy makers across multiple levels of governance and communities. The project is implemented by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC).
For project related queries: Gulzada Azhetova is a Project Management Specialist at USAID’s mission in Central Asia. Ekaterina Strikeleva is the Chief of Party for USAID’s Smart Waters Project.
Author & photographer: Petro Kotzé is a freelance writer, photographer and consultant for the Smart Waters project.