Thursday, November 27, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Lake Balkhash May Disappear in Five to Six Years Thanks to Chinese Demand for Water

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 27 – Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkash, the largest body of water in the former Soviet space and the 15th largest lake in the world, may follow the Aral Sea into extinction, becoming like its more famous counterpart, a series of smaller disconnected lakes and dried out places within five or six years, according to Petr Bologov.
            One of the reasons for this is the same one that killed the Aral Sea: excessive use of water by populations living along the rivers whose waters had fed that body of water. But in addition, there is a new one: China is blocking the flow of the rivers flowing from its territory into the lake (
           If Lake Balkhash dies that quickly and because of these Chinese actions, its impact on the politics and the population of the surround area is likely to be even greater than has been the death of the Aral Sea. On the one hand, given that the lake’s basin includes a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population, its death will affect how that country views China in the future.
          And on the other, those feelings are likely to be even more negative because the population in the affected areas is likely to suffer from skyrocketing rates of cancers as a result of exposure to newly-exposed rare earth minerals from the lake bed and from plunging life expectancies as a result, if the experience in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakia is any guide.
              Lake Balkhash has been under stress since the 1970s because of Soviet-era industrial and agricultural expansion and the growth of population around the rivers which flow into that body of water.  But the situation has become critical since China began its program of developing Xinjiang in order to attract more Han Chinese to the area and thus overwhelm the local Muslim populations.
               China has thus increasingly taken water from the Ili River which has provided much of the water for Lake Balkhash and that in turn means that less of this water is coming downstream into the lake.  Ecologists project, the journalist says, that by mid-century, China will have cut the downstream flow by 40 percent.
               In 2001, Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement about trans-border rivers, but the new Chinese development program for Xinjiang has made that a dead letter. In 2007, Kazakhstan proposed negotiating a new accord, but up to now, Beijing has refused to do so, thus exacerbating the situation of Lake Balkhash.
              If it were not for the Chinese, Bologov says, Kazakhstan could save Lake Balkhash. It has already taken steps to ensure that more water flows into the lake.  But because of China, Astana’s efforts won’t be enough, and Kazakhstan can only hope that the international community will put pressure on Beijing to agree to talks.
           If that doesn’t happen, Lake Balkash will follow the Aral Sea into extinction and far faster than anyone imagines.





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