Over the last decade Kazakhstan and China have conducted a wide range of talks on the environmental safety of shared rivers and the use of joint water resources. Beijing took every occasion to deny on official levels that China was building dams in the Irtysh River, which is shared by China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, to divert water for irrigation purposes. The government of Kazakhstan is well aware that China faces a hard dilemma struggling to cope with growing water demands in its rapidly developing western provinces while having to respect previously reached international agreements on the Irtysh and Ili Rivers.
Patience ran out when Beijing started construction of a canal linking the Black Irtysh with the Karamai River on Chinese territory, dramatically lowering the water level in the river. China’s water-management policy threatens to drastically reduce crop production in the environmentally vulnerable regions of East Kazakhstan, Pavlodar, and Karaganda. Such a move could also cause a severe drought in Russia’s wheat-growing Omsk region.
Last November, in a desperate attempt to prevent an environmental disaster, the governor of Omsk region, Leonid Polezhayev, ordered 10 billion rubles to be allocated for the construction of a huge water reservoir to accumulate floodwaters for industrial use. He argued that a political solution to the Irtysh River dispute was not feasible, since the Chinese did not wish to negotiate. However, Amirkhan Kenshimov, deputy chairman of the Water Resources Committee of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture, announced that China had expressed a readiness to resume talks on the division of the Irtysh and Ili water resources. The deputy minister of Kazakhstan’s Emergency Situations Agency, Bolatbek Kuandykov, confirmed this report and added that the government should do everything to finalize talks with Beijing in the nearest future (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, February 14).
Experts familiar with the state of affairs on the Chinese side are less optimistic about Beijing’s resolve to solve the problem of water resources in the Irtysh-Ili basin without dragging out the talks endlessly. Many in the government are apparently not aware of the fact that last year China opened a hydroelectric power station that consumes 15% of the Ili River’s water resources. Environmentalists warn that in the next few years China will build additional hydroelectric power installations along the Irtysh and Ili Rivers; 65 hydroelectric power stations have already been built. Among the installations not revealed to the Kazakh government delegation is the Kapshagay (a hydroelectric power station in Kazakhstan carries the same name) water reservoir, with the enormous capacity of 380 million cubic meters. China is planning to build another 13 reservoirs in the coming years (Novoye pokolenie, February 10).
The forced industrial development of northwestern China is likely to pollute Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan with chemicals and fertilizers, as the Ili River feeds the lake. The increase of paddy fields in Xingjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has already led to the depletion of the Irtysh and Ili Rivers. According to the latest data, as a result of mismanagement the annual loss of water in the Chinese section of the Ili River basin makes up 4.4 cubic kilometers, which equals 15% of the whole water resources of the river. That reduces substantially the amount of water inflow into Lake Balkhash. The root cause of the problem is that until now China had not signed the international convention on trans-border waters. Malik Burlibayev, the manager of the project, advocates “integrated management of the Irtysh River basin.” Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan should join efforts to reach a comprehensive agreement with China on the Irtysh and Ili Rivers, he added.
Environmental activist and leader of Tabigat (Nature) movement Mels Yeleusizov, who ran for president of Kazakhstan in 2005, says the problem of pollution and depletion of the Irtysh is a political issue, and he appealed to the governments of Kazakhstan and China, as well as to the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan to become involved, but to no avail (Novoye pokolenie, February 10).
The accelerated development of Xingjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is increasingly alarming the Kazakh government. Border areas in southern regions have already become an incongruous melting pot of dozens of ethnic groups. The water shortages in this densely populated area could lead to a violent outbreak of interethnic conflict. Another worry is that, despite the signing of border agreements between Kazakhstan and China, Beijing did not abandon altogether territorial claims on some southern regions of Kazakhstan. Some years ago a Kazakh Foreign Ministry delegation was surprised to see the former capital, Almaty; Balkhash; and other areas of south Kazakhstan marked as parts of China on a map in Beijing’s central museum. The Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan filed an official protest, and the Chinese promised to correct the mistake. But the school text on Xingjiang history lists the same parts of Kazakhstan as Chinese territory (Zhas Qazaq, February 3).
Beijing’s current adamant attitude on the issues of trans-border rivers clearly reflects China’s manifest contempt for the principles of good-neighborly relations. Given the lack of interaction between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, Astana has no alternative to drawn-out, yet fruitless, talks with China on this issue of vital importance.