Staunton, May 3 – Russia’s agriculture minister Aleksandr Tkachev is proposing opening talks with Beijing on the diversion of Siberian river water to China. But although he says it would benefit Russia by limiting spring flooding inside the Russian Federation, there are three reasons why his proposal is likely to prove explosive.
First, for Russian nationalists and Siberian residents, it will recall earlier debates about the possible diversion of Siberian river water to Central Asia, a program that Mikhail Gorbachev killed after considering its ecological impact on downstream areas and the Arctic and its political consequences among Russians.
Second, it will highlight other trans-border river issues along Russia’s southern border in Asia, particularly the dispute with Mongolia over a dam that Russian officials and activists say will contribute to the destruction of Lake Baikal but that Ulan Bator sees as necessary for its own development.
And third, it is likely to contribute to anger in Central Asia against both Russia and China, against Russia because Moscow appears willing to give China the water it has been unwilling to give Central Asia and against China because Beijing’s increasing footprint in Central Asia is already sparking protests and unrest there.
In comments that have been picked up by various Russian news services today, Tkachev said that “we are ready to propose a project for divert fresh water from the Altay kray of Russia through Kazakhstan to the Xinjiang-Uyghur autonomous district of the Peoples Republic of China which is suffering a drought (ria.ru/east/20160503/1425318933.html).
According to the Russian sources, this would involve sending “about 70 million cubic meters of water” from reservoirs in the Altay to China via the Pavlodar oblast of Kazakhstan and require the construction of a new canal system to handle the flow, one that would likely have to be lined with concrete in order to reduce leaching.
This is only one of the trans-border water issues in the region. Far more serious because far more advanced is a clash between Russia and Mongolia over Ulan Bator’s construction of a dam a river that provides much of in-flow of water to Russia’s Lake Baikal, something the Russian authorities and environmental activists very much oppose.
But despite Russian pressure, Mongolia shows no sign of backing down. The construction of the dam and the creation of a reservoir, Ulan Bator officials say, is vital to the future of their country whose population is growing and whose territory is increasingly subject to desertification (asiarussia.ru/news/12192/).
They say that they have “no choice but to go ahead if the Mongolian state is to exist” and express the hope that “Russian citizens, including our blood brothers, the Buryats, will understand this,” adding that if Baikal is under threat, Russia rather than Mongolia is responsible for that.
But perhaps even more immediately important as a trigger for political conflict are water disputes not between China and Mongolia, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, but among the countries of Central Asia and especially between them and China which is rapidly expanding its position in the region, including making efforts to gain access to water supplies.
Tensions between the two water surplus Central Asian republics – Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – and the three water short ones – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – have existed since the 1920s. Indeed, in Soviet times, Moscow exploited them as one of its tools to keep the region divided and subservient.
Since 1991, these tensions have only grown because there is no one to play the role of arbiter as Moscow used to do. That has not only sparked clashes between those countries with enough water and those without but also sparked an international search for solutions, one that has not get achieved its aim (caa-network.org/archives/7040).
China’s involvement in the region has only intensified this issue given that many Central Asians fear that Beijing will purchase land and with it access to water and thus reduce them to the status of its vassals, a fear that recently sparked major demonstrations in three cities of Kazakhstan (bbc.com/russian/international/2016/04/160429_kazakhstan_land_rent_protests).
Protesters said that “if we give land to the Chinese, they will never leave,” over time they will acquire Kazakhstan citizenship, and then “our descendants will be their slaves.”
Just how potentially explosive this issue is not only in Kazakhstan but across the region has been highlighted by Tashkent’s decision to block sites reporting about the protests in the neighboring country and any discussion of the issues involved (asiaterra.info/news/v-uzbekistane-zablokirovali-soobshcheniya-o-massovykh-vystupleniyakh-v-kazakhstane).