- Uzbekistan’s water supply and sanitation (WSS) infrastructure, largely constructed during the Soviet era, has by-and-large exhausted its useful life and requires extensive rehabilitation. At the turn of the century, increasing the local population’s access to quality drinking water and sanitation services became a top priority for the government.
- The World Bank’s Bukhara and Samarkand Sewerage Project (BSSP) was developed to tackle the large-scale environmental pollution from limited wastewater treatment in the Zaravshan basin.
- The USD $133 million WSS sector reforms and infrastructure development project, which came to a close in 2021, ultimately benefitted more than half a million Uzbekistanis with improved WSS services.
Uzbekistan’s Zaravshan river is known as the "spreader of gold" in Persian and refers to the presence of gold-bearing sands in the upper reaches of the river. Beyond precious minerals, however, this “gold river” has brought wealth in other ways. In the semi-arid, double landlocked country whose geography is dominated by deserts and mountains, the river feeds some of the nation’s only arable lands, which are concentrated in river valleys and oases, making the Zaravshan a key source of irrigation water. In addition, for over two and half millennia, the Zaravshan basin was among the most important sites on the Great Silk Roads traversing Central Asia, conferring upon the region significant economic and cultural importance.
In modern times, however, the Zaravshan basin gained a different, more notorious, reputation. Extensive bacterial and chemical contamination transformed the area into one of the country’s most polluted basins, the consequences of which have been far reaching, threatening ecosystems, agriculture, and human health, with negative impacts for the economy.
The Bukhara and Samarkand Sewerage Project
The World Bank’s Bukhara and Samarkand Sewerage Project (BSSP), initiated in 2010 and which came to a close on November 30, 2021, tackled a major source of the large-scale environmental pollution in the Zaravshan basin: the widespread lack of wastewater treatment in two of its urban centers, Bukhara and Samarkand. The USD $133 million project, which set out to increase wastewater service coverage and improve the overall efficiency and sustainability of the cities’ utilities, ultimately benefitted more than half a million Uzbekistanis with improved WSS services. The completion of the BSSP marks a major milestone in the World Bank’s engagement with Uzbekistan’s WSS sector, ongoing since 1997 and focused on increasing access and improving service quality.
A Modern History of Uzbekistan’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector
Soon after independence in 1991, the government launched a program to reform highly centralized housing and municipal services. In 1996, local governments were made responsible for WSS services, with control over Vodokanals (water utilities) in charge of service provision. The institutional framework of the sector remained weak, however, impaired by incomplete decentralization, fragmented responsibilities, and low capacity.
In addition, Uzbekistan’s WSS infrastructure, largely constructed during the Soviet era, had by-and-large exhausted its useful life, was highly energy intensive, and required extensive rehabilitation. In 2008, access to improved piped water connections was 73 percent, but those that received safely managed water was considerably lower, just 58 percent. Sewerage services were substantially less developed than those of water supply, and, where they did exist, were in poor condition.
Wastewater treatment facilities were also highly degraded and, in many cases, nonoperational, resulting in the pollution of surface water resources, such as the Zaravshan river. Outside of Uzbekistan’s large cities, up to 30 percent of water supply was non-compliant with national quality standards. According to the Ministry of Public Health, in 2003 waterborne diseases including typhoid, dysentery, and giardia, were the most common type of infectious diseases reported in the country, caused in large due to lack of effective water management.
Beyond the economic impacts, the unequal access to and quality characteristics of public services were a cause of social tension and discontent, particularly in view of broader economic development, rising socioeconomic aspirations, and demands for improved public services. At the time of the BSSP’s preparation, for example, there was no dedicated ministry for the water sector.
Sector development and oversight were instead entrusted to the Uzkommunhizmat Agency, which was focused on implementation of investment programs, with limited capacity to lead water sector planning, policy, or reform agendas. Meanwhile, the performance of Vodokanals was generally low, due to a combination of weak capacity and a limited culture of efficiency and customer orientation.
In this context the BSSP’s objective of mitigating negative environmental outcomes related to poor WSS required not only improving wastewater collection and treatment while also addressing service performance challenges facing utilities. But required doing so against a backdrop of institutional growing pains and the country’s gradual transition to a market economy.
A Return to Glory for The Gilded River
Prior to the BSSP, raw sewerage was discharged directly into the Zaravshan river without treatment. Today the rehabilitation, reconstruction, and expansion of the cities’ main wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and construction of a brand new WWTP mean that effluent is appropriately treated in line with national standards before discharge.
At the outset of the project, the Samarkand WWTP was severely dilapidated and unable to treat the vast majority of the raw sewerage it received, while the Bukhara plant was completely nonfunctional. After the rehabilitation work was completed, the plants reached a capacity of 145,000 m3/day and 50,000 m3/day respectively.
Moreover, thanks to operational improvements, the plants have dramatically increased their energy efficiency, making them a model for other WWTPs in a country whose carbon-intensive growth model has been deemed unsustainable.
The financial and operational sustainability of the cities’ utilities has also dramatically improved through the project. The BSSP connected an additional 40,000 new households to the sewer network, which required rehabilitating 84km of sewers and constructing 144km of new sewer lines. Additionally, the project rehabilitated or replaced all 22 of the cities’ pumping stations to cope with current and future loads.
Despite challenges, Vodokanals in both cities were able to increase their operational and financial performance, with a renewed focus on capacity building and regionalization of WSS utilities. And customer satisfaction is up. A pilot survey—implemented in Bukhara through the use of a mobile application—showed positive results: 94 percent responded that they were satisfied with their level of service in 2021.
The BSSP has enabled a hard-won and dramatic turnaround in the Zaravshan basin. While challenges remain, especially considering Uzbekistan is among the world’s most inefficient users of water with withdrawal rates exceeding 90 percent of the total renewable resource, the project’s success has underlined the value of steadfast yet flexible support in a country context where the WSS sector is still maturing.