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What Is Causing Lake Balkhash To Shrink?

Via the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, an article on Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan:

Balkhash, the largest lake in Kazakhstan (14th in the world), could dry up and repeat the fate of the Aral Sea due to China’s intensive water withdrawal, unsustainable agriculture and the effects of climate change.

How does Kazakhstan solve the problem of water sharing with China and what consequences can we expect with the drying up of this unique lake?

Lake Balkhash is a closed semi-freshwater lake in the Balkhash-Alakol depression in the south-east of Kazakhstan. The main source of the lake is the transboundary Ili river, which flows through China and Kazakhstan. The sources of this river begin in China and provide more than 80% of the water inflow of lake Balkhash.

The uniqueness of the lake lies in the fact that it is divided by a narrow strait into two parts with different water compositions – in the western part it is practically fresh, and in the eastern part it is brackish.

Balkhash in the western part has a yellowish-gray tint due to fresh water, and in the eastern part it changes from bluish to emerald blue due to salt water, which is noticeable in satellite images. Photo: Google Earth

The entire territory adjacent to the Ili river is included in the Ili-Balkhash water basin. The Ili-Balkhash basin is one of the most complex ecosystems in the world, occupying a vast territory of 413 thousand square kilometers in area in the South-East of Kazakhstan and North-West of China. A fifth of the population of Kazakhstan lives in the basin, 50% of which are rural residents[1].

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), along with many experts, notes in its report the risk of shallowing Lake Balkhash. The water level in the lake basin has been declining since 1960. This is due to the intense evaporation of the water surface and the increase in the catchment area of ??China for the development of Northwest China, as well as for the irrigation of crops in the two countries[2]. It should be noted that the melting of glaciers and the intense evaporation of water resources caused by climate change are intensifying the tendency for the Ili-Balkhash basin to become shallow.

The shallowing of Balkhash is especially noticeable in its shallow western part. From 1972 to 2001, the small salt lake Alakol, located 8 km south of the lake, practically disappeared, and the southern part of Balkhash itself lost about 150 km² of water surface during this period.

The water resources of this basin are used to irrigate crops (in particular rice and cotton), to accumulate reservoirs in the two countries, and also to support industrial facilities.

Although according to the official departments of Kazakhstan, there is no reason to assert that shallowing is occurring, scientists from the University of Oxford in the UK have modeled 738 possible options for the development of the Ili-Balkhash basin, comparing possible changes in water consumption with 80 options for climate change in the future – from drier to more humid. And virtually all of the results point to the same conclusion: to save the lake, China needs to drastically cut its water use.

For Kazakhstan, this basin is one of the vital ones, when, as a basin, it serves as a reference point for China in the development of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

How does China affect the shallowing of Lake Balkhash?

The PRC has created and is implementing the concept of transforming the Xinjiang into a regional trade and economic center of Central Asia, the influence of which should extend to the entire region, as well as to the countries of the Middle East. The concept of developing the west of China, according to many experts, will speed up the process of implementing the “One Belt and One Way” project in Central Asia.

In the 1980s the population of the territory of the Chinese part of the Ili basin did not exceed one million people, but over the past twenty years the population of Xinjiang has almost doubled. According to the latest census, more than 25 million people live in the Xinjiang[3].

This is related to the intensive development of the Xinjiang’s natural resources, which entailed an even larger scale of water resources use. The volume of water consumption is increasing not only for the needs of new irrigated lands and water-intensive sectors of the mining and processing industries, but also for a huge number of migrants from the interior regions of the PRC.

Increase in agricultural fields from 2000 to 2020 on the Kazakh-Chinese border, where the Ili River flows. To the left of the yellow line is Kazakhstan, to the right is China. Source: Google Earth

Satellite image of the border area where the Ili river flows westward from China to Kazakhstan. The border is marked in yellow. The river and coastal vegetation are clearly separated from the surrounding arid landscape of Kazakhstan. On the Chinese side, irrigated fields are visible extending to the border.

According to satellite calculations and vegetation calculation methodologies (NDVI), the area of irrigated areas in Xinjiang is growing rapidly due to water withdrawal.

Also, in the Xinjiang, the construction of a canal from the Ili River is in full swing, which is aimed at water supply to the Tarim Basin – large oil and gas fields have been discovered there, and at the moment the Chinese are intensively developing them. The planned flow of water through both canals is more than six cubic kilometers per year[4].

China, having a favorable geographic location in the upper reaches of the Ili-Balkhash basin, is successfully implementing its plans for the intensive intake of water resources from the transboundary Ili river for irrigating western lands and diverting the river to the Tarim basin.

How does Kazakhstan solve the problem with water sharing of the Ili river with China?

Kazakhstan is trying in every possible way to avoid the same scenario of development with Balkhash as that of the Aral Sea. For this, the official authorities are implementing various programs for the sustainable development of the Ili-Balkhash basin in Kazakhstan. In the messages of Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Balkhash has always occupied a special place, which can be traced at the largest conferences “Balkhash-2000” and UN assemblies on lake Balkhash.

In solving the problems of water intake, Kazakhstan has repeatedly initiated dialogues with China and referred to the norms of international law on transboundary water resources.

In international law, the main documents in the management of transboundary water resources are the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (1992) and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997). These documents are of great importance in the regulation of transboundary environmental problems.

However, the main drawback of these documents is that their actions apply to the states that signed them (or to the states that joined them).

To date, the PRC has not yet joined any international convention on transboundary rivers and does not intend to join them, since almost all transboundary rivers in China originate within the country. By committing itself to equitable water management, China will aggravate the socio-economic situation in its western part.

On the one hand, of course, it should be noted that there are attempts and progress in the development of bilateral relations in the field of transboundary water resources between Kazakhstan and China. Thus, the states signed the Agreement “On cooperation in the use and protection of transboundary rivers” (12.09.2001, Astana, now Nur-Sultan).

Within the framework of this agreement, the management system is considered not only in the Ili river basin, but also issues related to the equally sensitive basin of the Black Irtysh river. According to chinese plans, a canal has already been built on the Irtysh river to drain water for the oil industry under the same name “Kara Irtysh-Karamay”.

It should be noted that all these agreements are of a declarative and technical nature, but not political, capable of changing the river regime in favor of Kazakhstan.

Nevertheless, in 2007 Kazakhstan offered a barter contract for ten-year food supplies to China with the condition for more river flow to Balkhash. But according to experts, China rejected the proposal[5].

Kazakhstan’s contribution to the shallowing of Lake Balkhash

Almost all of its water resources Kazakhstan spends on the agricultural sector[6]. Therefore, it should be recognized that Kazakhstan also makes a significant contribution to the drying up of the Ili-Balkhash basin. On the Ili river in the Kazakh part in 1970, the dam of the Kapchagai hydroelectric power station was built, which formed the Kapchagai reservoir. When filling this reservoir, the balance of Lake Balkhash was disturbed, which caused a deterioration in water quality, especially in the eastern part of the lake. But the most important crisis for Balkhash was the decrease in the water level from 1970 to 1987, when the water level dropped by 2.2 m, and the volume by 30 km.

The minimum water level in the lake (340.65 meters above sea level) was recorded in 1987 after the completion of the filling of the Kapchagai reservoir, and in January 2005 there was an increase in the level to 342.5 meters, which some experts attributed to the large amount of precipitation that fell over last years.

The statistics on water consumption in Kazakhstan confirms the fact that there are huge losses of water resources with the existing irrigation method in agriculture.

Another factor affecting the shallowing and pollution of the Ili-Balkhash basin is emissions from the Balkhash mining and metallurgical plant, owned by the state corporation Kazakhmys.

As steps to improve the environmental situation, it was proposed to stop the filling of the Kapchagai reservoir, purify the wastewater of the metallurgical plant, reduce irreversible losses for irrigation, etc.

But summing up, it is worth recognizing that the modern system of traditional irrigation of agricultural crops in Kazakhstan is still ineffective, contributing to large losses of water in the rivers.

Impact of climate change on the drying up of Lake Balkhash

Climate change, which is expressed in an increase in average annual temperatures, a decrease in precipitation, due to and in intensive evaporation of water, lead to the melting of glaciers. In the Nature Climate Change study, Balkhash is named as one of the basins particularly susceptible to depletion of glacial runoff[7]. In particular, runoff can be expected to decrease by at least 10% in the future due to the shrinking of glaciers. Peak water has not yet been reached for most of the Tien Shan glaciers, according to research, but this is expected to happen in the next 20 years.

Therefore, it should be noted that the situation with the drying up of the largest lake is aggravated by the consequences of climate change.

Forecasts and recommendations

It seems that in the current situation without creating an institutional framework for the settlement of disputes over transboundary and border watercourses, it should be assumed that China will not take water less than the amount it takes, but may increase its water intake.

Therefore, Kazakhstan needs to adapt to these circumstances and reduce water consumption from the Ili-Balkhash basin through the introduction of sustainable irrigation systems and reduction of the catchment area. One such system is drip irrigation. A feature of drip irrigation is its difference from other methods of irrigation, the “drop” several times reduces the level of water consumption. Most drip irrigation systems are designed to provide each plant with the required amount of water without wasting. Low water consumption also means fewer running costs, as pipelines, hoses, drippers, filtration equipment wear less and last longer[8].

Regarding the establishment of a potential crisis with China, it is worth noting that Kazakhstan needs to use almost all negotiating platforms within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Belt and Road Initiative, but the chances that China will yield to Kazakhstan in this matter are very small.

Climate change, which is reflected in Central Asia by the intense melting of glaciers, will also intensify the drying up of lake Balkhash in the future. Almost all glaciers feeding the Balkhash lake basin have not yet approached the level of maximum consumption of water reserves, which means that surface runoff from glaciers will continue to increase annually. However, everything will change in the coming decades, and the volumes of runoff will finally decrease. If by that time reliable methods of water resources management are not introduced, then one can expect a surge of contradictions on the basis of water use between the two countries – and it will be difficult for Kazakhstan to win in this struggle.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 29th, 2021 at 9:57 am and is filed under Balkhash-Alakol Basin, China, Kazakhstan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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