Developing Sustainable Water and Sanitation in Central Asia's Rural Areas

Governments are making efforts to address water issues and combat water scarcity while seeking solutions to ensure water, sanitation and hygiene sustainability. Photo credit: UNICEF/D.Sadulloev.

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Policymakers should focus on long-term strategic plans such as zoning of territories based on potential water sources when designing water and sanitation solutions for communities.


Lack of access to safe water and sanitation not only impacts the living standards of populations but also undermines public health, irrespective of country. Based on a United Nations forecast, by 2050 water shortage will become a crucial issue for over 5.5 billion people globally.

Public health, especially during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, depends on available water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), including regular and proper handwashing.

This study on the People’s Republic of China, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan analyzed the current situation of drinking water supply and sanitation services in their respective rural areas. It also identified challenges of rural communities in accessing the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, and provided recommendations for future development.

Key findings

Each of the countries in the study has placed a growing emphasis on advancing the WASH sectors and shares similar challenges. The most common challenges are (i) population growth requiring the construction of new systems to allow access to drinking water supply; (ii) urban versus rural drinking water supply and sanitation disparities; (iii) lack of human capacity for the proper operation of WASH networks; and (iv) low tariffs and low service fee collection rates for water and sanitation services.

All four countries have national implementation plans to support domestic WASH policies. However, despite political will and the presence of various programs, none of them have reached 100% access to WASH services.

For instance, a substantial share of the drinking water supply infrastructure in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was built during the Soviet era, and fewer than 50% of rural communities have piped drinking water supply. Population growth and the development of new settlements, which are not covered by the existing systems, require significant investment primarily from the state budget. Considering their current economic state, it is impossible to cover all these needs in a short timeframe.

The People’s Republic of China has demonstrated better results in providing access to WASH services in rural areas. It has implemented a well-planned and long-term policy—the Rural Drinking Water Safety (RDWS) concept, which has increased piped drinking water supply coverage in rural communities to 54% by 2017.

In contrast, Mongolia's long-term strategies concentrate on urban development and do not include actions to ensure WASH access in rural areas. This translates to a low rate of only about 5% of rural-level piped systems. The remote location of communities and a nomadic way of life prevent Mongolia from deploying a centralized water supply and predetermine the priority of decentralized schemes.

Sanitation systems are even less developed than water supplies in the four countries. The most developed system—with 83% urban and 56% rural coverage—exists in the People’s Republic of China. Uzbekistan’s municipal wastewater systems are significantly inferior to those in the People’s Republic of China, covering only 5.5% of rural communities.

In addition, all of the legal frameworks of the four countries still need to be supplemented with WASH-related bylaws, methodologies, and rules. They also need to forge mechanisms that allow easy access to subsidies and tax incentives, especially in rural areas.


The recommendations presented in the report aim to advance the WASH sector in the four countries, and provide a view of ongoing challenges in the region:

  • Institutional frameworks represent the operational basis for WASH services, often with the complex structure and repetitive functions of various agencies. Such frameworks are key to ensure proper operation and further progress of WASH management systems in different tiers. Identifying optimal models, considering country peculiarities, and streamlining the functionality of different agencies should be the main tasks of government.
  • Zoning of territories based on promising drinking water supply sources and considering local specifics should guide the design of suitable drinking water supply and sanitation systems in rural localities. Based on such zoning, the governments should elaborate long-term strategic plans for developing domestic rural and urban WASH systems.
  • The development of WASH financial plans identifying potential funding sources is necessary for the successful deployment of public WASH services. Strategies and policies should include projects and programs to improve service fee collection and reconsider tariff schemes. While introducing nationwide pro-poor, full-cost recovery mechanisms, special emphasis should be laid on supporting vulnerable communities. Countries already have some mechanisms for supporting vulnerable communities, but these work only on a pilot basis or require clearer implementation and monitoring mechanisms.
  • The development of regulations and rules and forging mechanisms allowing easy access to subsidies and tax incentives especially for rural areas, constitutes two more necessary conditions for effective WASH system management. Lack of proper mechanisms for the distribution of subsidies or other financial benefits and monitoring of the implementation of these mechanisms will lead to corruption and misallocation, which will nullify all efforts.
  • Private sector involvement can become instrumental for ensuring sustainability and enhancing the operation of WASH systems. National governments should concentrate on providing clear-cut and mutually beneficial mechanisms for engaging the private sector in establishing and operating local level WASH systems.
  • Recognition of the water-energy-food nexus is a significant stipulation for the sustainable development of territories. Using water for irrigation and household purposes has its advantages but risks are also associated with dual or multi-purpose schemes. Since water resource is crucial for the development of different economic sectors, governments need to pay more attention to regular coordination and identifying sector-specific benefits. The establishment of intersectoral and interdepartmental platforms—both nationally and locally—should become the basis for more effective and transparent management.
  • Developing a mechanism to involve local communities in decision-making. Community-based approaches are at the heart of implementing WASH projects, helping to reach collective responsibility and create new norms around a specific behavior. Since local communities are the direct users of rural drinking water supply projects, their involvement in decision-making ensures long-term efficiency.
  • Designing capacity-building programs and staffing plans and strategies for maintaining and retaining professionals should become a priority for the governments. Public water awareness programs encompassing different aspects such as hygiene, technology, economy, and environment are also necessary.
  • Human resources development is necessary to foster research and innovations in water supply, sanitation, hygiene, and wastewater treatment. The development of effective and tailored knowledge, technology, and experience sharing mechanisms should be the basis for the successful implementation of WASH projects. Special attention should be given to developing and executing adaptation programs and developing novel scientific approaches and innovations with a special focus on rural development. This can be done by establishing knowledge and experience exchange centers.

Ekaterina Strikeleva
Former Water Initiatives Support Program Manager, Central Asian Regional Environmental Centre (CAREC)

Ekaterina Strikeleva has over 18 years of experience in the management and implementation of environmental and water programs in Central Asia. She has managed project portfolios for the United States Agency for International Development, European Union, Norway, German Society for International Cooperation, and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe that focused on integrated water resources management, basin planning, ecosystem services, water quality, WASH, nexus approach for water, food and energy, sustainable water management and stakeholders’ engagement in Central Asia.

Iskandar Abdullaev
Deputy Director Two, CAREC Institute

Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev has over 25 years of experience in water and environmental management in Central Asia. Prior to joining the CAREC Institute, he was Executive Director of the Regional Environmental Center for Central Asia. He was also Regional Advisor for the Berlin Initiative-Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia at the German Society for International Cooperation. He is a member of the International Water Resources Association and has authored books, articles, policy papers, and conference papers on various water-related issues.

Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Institute (CAREC)

The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Institute (CAREC) is an intergovernmental organization promoting economic cooperation in Central Asia and along the ancient Silk Road through knowledge generation and sharing. CAREC is jointly shared, owned, and governed by 11 member countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, People’s Republic of China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

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