Thursday, January 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: China Said Killing Lake Balkhash and Making Kazakhstan into a Desert

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 24 – Ecologists say that Beijing’s plans to develop Xinjiang will have “apocalyptic” consequences for Kazakhstan, making Lake Balkash into a second Aral Sea, drying up the Irtysh River, and leaving the residents of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Pavlodar, Karaganda, and Semeya (the former Semipalatinsk) without drinking water.

            According to a report by Petr Bologov on the news agency today, China cannot hope to develop its far west without water and thus has decided without any apologies to take it from the Ili and Irtysh, two rivers “on which those living in Central and Eastern Kazakhstan directly depend”  (

Both these rivers rise in China: the Irtysh on the border with Mongolia and the Ili in the Tyan-Shan mountains. They then flow into Kazakhstan where the Ili provides water to Lake Balkhash and the sixth of the Kazakhstan population living along its length and the Irtysh drinking water to some four million additional Kazakhs.

            Kazakhstan and China have been discussing these two trans-border rivers since 1998, but Astana was able to raise the level of the talks beyond the expert level only in 2009 and only two years ago announced that they would conclude a water-sharing agreement for these rivers by 2014.
            China wants to retain more of the water from these rivers in order to supply a Xinjiang population which Beijing projects will grow from 20 million now to 100 million in 2030, a population whose needs for water will more than double, Bologov says, noting that China has already been taking increasing amount of water from these two rivers.

            According to hydrologists in Kazakhstan, if China takes even ten percent more than it is doing now, that will “inevitably lead to a situation in which Lake Balkash will split into two parts and thus follow the path of the Aral Sea with one of the parts drying out completely” and the lake thus disappearing.

            Beijing has turned down Astana’s proposals to avoid that outcome, and Kazakhstan authorities are now worried that “the Irtysh will suffer even more from the intensive [Chinese] development of Xinjiang.”  That river’s flow now amounts to five cubic kilometers a year, of which China is already taking1.8 cubic kilometers.

             Officials in the portions of Kazakhstan most likely to be affected are pressing for the construction of new reservoirs in order to guarantee that there will be enough drinking water for their populations (, but they concede that even with those in place declines in the flow will affect agriculture and industrial production there.

                China has refused to sign the Helsinki Convention on the Preservation and Use of Trans-Border Water Flows and International Lakes, although Beijing has said that it is prepared to negotiate about such flows with its neighbors. But that leaves neighbors like Kazakhstan in a less than advantageous position.

            “The reduction of the size of trans-border flows of the Ili and Irtysh rivers is fraught with negative consequences for the unique lakes of Balkhan and Zaysan and the disappearance of the forests of the Ili Alataury, Dzhugarsky Alatau and Tarbagatay national part, Kazakhstan ecologist Bakytzhan Bazarbek said this week (

                He added that “if the Balkhash repeats the fate of the Aral, then from the bottom of the dried out body of water will rise thousands of tons of salt which will cover the entire eastern portion of the country,” leading as the disappearance of the Aral Sea has to environmental and health disasters across the land.

            Bazarbek says that Astana has no choice but to find “a common language” with China, but so far, last week’s bilateral talks concluded only with a promise that the discussions will continue (

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