Saturday, October 26, 2019

Silting Up of Kazakhstan Rivers Threatens Export of Bulk Cargo, Much Else Besides

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 22 – Most outside attention to transportation networks in the post-Soviet states focuses on highways and railways because those are the most important arteries in Western countries, but in some post-Soviet countries, river and canal traffic is critical especially for bulk cargos.

            In Soviet times, Moscow invested heavily to ensure that the rivers and canals were dredged on a regular basis in order to maintain these vital links. But since 1991, many of the successor states have put off dredging and cleaning operations; and as a result, they now face a situation in which they cannot use the networks on which they had relied.

            One of the countries in the most dire straits in this regard is Kazakhstan which until very recently had now conducted massive dredging operations in its Ural-Caspian basin since the 1990s.  In the intervening period, many of the rivers and some of the canals had become impassible as their effective depths had declined.

            Conditions on the Ural River and the Ural-Caspian canal are now especially bad, journalist Sergey Smirnov says; and as a result Kazakhstan is now at risk of losing access to the Caspian and through it and the Volga to the Azov, Black, White and Baltic Seas (

            Earlier this year, the Kazakhstan government became alarmed and ordered dredging operations to resume, but so far, they have only affected the canal near the Caspian but not the Ural River which feeds that canal (

In order to restore heavy barge traffic on the Ural, Smirnov continues, the government is going to have to begin major digging operations. At the end of Soviet times, the main channel of that river was maintained at a depth of five meters; but now as a result of siltification, in many places it is far shallower than that. 

The silting up of the bottom of the river has not only made barge traffic problematic much of the year but also had a serious impact on the fishing industry on which the population living in that portion of Kazakhstan relies. It will take a long time to restore what has been lost, Smirnov suggests.

And the loss of a river channel for shipping has had the additional negative impact in Kazakhstan of leading to a sharp decline in the size of the republic’s shipping fleet.  Restoring that and restoring the river system is going to require enormous investments, far larger than any that have been made in the last two decades.

            But unless that investment is made, Smirnov concludes, far more will be lost than just barge traffic: Kazakhstan’s economy and the well-being of its people will be put at increasing risk as well. 

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