Flowing Downstream: The Sino-Kazakh Water Dispute

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 10

Within the current Sino-Central Asian rapprochement, the issue over water rights and management has become an important factor in regional cooperation, but also a source of increasing contention. Kazakhstan and China share some 20 transboundary rivers. Two of Kazakhstan’s main rivers, the Ili and the Irtysh, originate in China, the former in the Tian-Shan Mountains and the latter in the Chinese Altay Mountains. China has recently extracted increasing amounts of water from both rivers upstream of the border. Such extractions have adversely affected Kazakhstan’s agricultural and industrial development and could even influence regions as far away as Siberia, since the Irtysh is the main tributary of the Ob River, which traverses the Omsk region. In preparation for the upcoming August Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, this question resurfaced for some weeks on the public stage in Kazakhstan, which is concerned about the degradation of the ecological systems and economic industries linked to the two rivers. The rapidly developing cooperation between China and Kazakhstan should, however, enable both parties to find an acceptable solution to this strategic issue.

Chinese Objectives

With the rapid expansion of its economy, China is confronting a human development challenge that could potentially destabilize varying regions. China recently reaffirmed its objective of developing the “Far West” (xibu dakaifa) as one of its main economic and policy issues for the coming years. Indeed, Beijing has placed much hope in developing western China’s agriculture industry, particularly cotton, which occupies close to half of Xinjiang’s arable land. Cotton production has become a key factor in the Chinese economy, and Beijing considers the massive exportation of textiles to be of vital strategic interest. China also seeks to augment wheat production in the autonomous Kazakh region of Xinjiang. This production is forecast to double to five million tonnes per year. To this end, new fields will require additional water supplies, which can only come from the Ili and Irtysh Rivers.

With constant decreases in the deposits of the northeast, Beijing also seeks to exploit the region’s petroleum resources. Xinjiang is believed to be home to more than a quarter of the country’s petroleum and gas reserves and is set to become the energy center of China in a few years. China is looking to attain production levels of 35 million tonnes of petroleum per year, which should satisfy more than a fifth of Chinese demands by 2010. The Urumqi and Lanzhu refineries will directly benefit from this appreciable increase in the petroleum supply; and the Tarim gas fields would—once the pipelines presently under construction are completed—service Shanghai. This economic development has favored urban growth in the Tarim and Turpan regions, and the emerging towns in them have only continued to increase their water consumption.

In order to successfully complete these projects, Beijing has decided to increase the amount of water extracted from the Ili and Irtysh Rivers. In the 1990s, China announced the construction of the 300 kilometer-long and 22 meter-wide “Kara Irtysh-Karamai” canal, intended to redirect between 10 percent and 40 percent of the Irtysh to Ulungur Lake. The objective is twofold: first, to irrigate 140,000 new hectares of agricultural fields; and, second, to transport water to the Karamai oil fields, situated about 400 kilometers from Urumqi, with confirmed reserves of 1.7 billion tonnes of oil [1]. The canal reached completion in 1999. Currently, it diverts around 500 million cubic meters of water per year, but the figure should reach more than a billion cubic meters when it reaches its operating capacity in 2020. In October 2004, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Pei Shouxiao, recognized the project’s incredible significance, and affirmed that his country was counting on using as much as 40 percent of the Irtysh’s effluence (Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 30, 2005).

Economic and Ecological Risks in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, however, is less enthusiastic about China’s enormous consumption of water from these sources and is concerned about the falling level of these rivers in its territory, since it also requires a large amount of water to support its economic development. The Ili feeds into the Kapchagai hydroelectric station, which supplies energy to the south of Kazakhstan, an area that experiences considerable energy shortfalls. A reduction in its effluence would result in an almost automatic increase in electricity prices, which by the country’s standards are already relatively high. As for the Irtysh, it is navigable from April to October and is one of the chief motors driving commercial exchange between this part of Kazakhstan and the Russian town Omsk. In addition, the country lacks water for agriculture: close to 15,000 square kilometers of arable land earmarked for cotton production has not been developed in Kazakhstan due to the lack of water. Rice production has also decreased, supposedly because of the drop in river levels. According to the Kazakh government, the Irtysh is the main source of water for around four million out of the country’s total population of 15 million people (Asia Times, June 5, 1999).

Important towns of the northeast, such as Karaganda, Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar, all have a supply of fresh water coming directly from the Irtysh. The development of the capital Astana also requires greater provisions of water. Therefore, in order to meet the demands of the new capital, the authorities want to divert part of the Irtysh-Karaganda canal to supplement the Ishim, the Irtysh’s main tributary, which supplies and flows through Astana (Kazakhstanskaia pravda, January 16, 2001). In addition to threatening urban development in Kazakhstan, the drop in the river’s level also impairs its industrial potential. Many sites in the northeast have significant hydraulic consumption that relies on the effluence of the Irtysh. There are three hydroelectric stations in the region—one in Bukhtarma on Lake Zaisan, one in Ust-Kamenogorsk and one in Shulbinsk—all of which depend on reservoirs constructed during the Soviet era.

In addition to these economic arguments, Kazakhstan—with the backing of international environmental organizations—is concerned about the potential ecological risks accruing from China’s upstream extraction of water. A reduction in the effluence of the Irtysh would mean a degradation of the entire region’s ecosystem, which is already fragile, since the river also carries nitrates and petroleum products in addition to several heavy metals [2]. If this situation worsens, it could cause significant damage to Lake Zaisan, which, according to some sources, would be threatened with extinction [3]. A reduction in the effluence of the Ili would have even more serious consequences. Between the Chinese border and Lake Balkhash, the Ili is the chief source of irrigation for the fields lining the length of the Grand Almaty canal and is crucial to rice growing in the Akdalinsk region. Similarly, though it provides the lake with more than 50 percent of its water supply, by the time it reaches the Balkhash, the Ili already carries a large number of agricultural chemical pollutants.

Lake Balkhash was already ecologically damaged in the 1960s and 1970s with the construction of the Kapchagai reservoir. The 15th largest in the world, the lake plays a key role in maintaining the climatic balance of the southeast and Central Kazakhstan. Regular increases in the lake’s salinity, however, adversely affect its fresh water levels. (The lake in fact has the peculiarity of being divided into two parts, the western part being made up of fresh water, the eastern part of salt water.) Moreover, with the combination of dropping water levels, a deteriorating ecosystem, a reduction in the number of fish species and declining fishing yields, the living conditions of the local population have been detrimentally affected. The UNDP has raised the alarm, warning that the fall in the water supply from the Ili to the Lake “could become an environmental tragedy comparable to the Aral Sea disaster” [4]. If river levels continue to drop, the ensuing climatic transformation of the region could become irreversible.

Difficult Negotiations between Unequal Partners

The use of water resources is poorly regulated by international treaties. States in conflict are therefore unable to appeal to specific juridical definitions and international obligations [5]. Despite its official declarations about the importance of regional negotiations, on this water issue, Beijing has chosen to rely upon bilateral discussions with its Central Asian neighbor in order to capitalize upon the disparity in political weight between the two countries.

The water issue was placed on the negotiating table when Kazakhstan achieved independence. The problem was initially raised by the first Kazakh ambassador to Beijing, Murat Auezov, though he did not succeed in drawing the attention of the Chinese authorities [6]. Kazakhstan then attempted to convince Russia to take an interest in the problem, pointing to the dangers that exploiting the two rivers would have for the Omsk region, since the Ob River depends on the Irtysh. Yet, Moscow has preferred, at least in the first instance, not to involve itself in tripartite negotiations. Then, in 1998, the Kazakh press became concerned about the construction of the “Kara Irtysh-Karamai” canal and published several alarmist articles about it. The threat of souring diplomatic relations between the two countries eventually compelled Beijing to consent to negotiations with Kazakhstan in order to solve the problem. Five rounds of official negotiations at various levels were organized in 1999, 2000 and 2001 [7].

Both countries finally signed a framework agreement for the protection and utilization of transboundary rivers in Astana on September 14, 2001 [8]. Nevertheless, the document does not stipulate any rules for the specific treatment of the Ili or the Irtysh, going no further than calling for a “measured” utilization of common waters. Beijing has systematically refused to erect a joint authority for managing the Irtysh, accepting only the creation of a Sino-Kazakh consultative commission, which has now met only on a few occasions, first in October 2003 in Beijing, then in October 2004 in Almaty, and again in October 2005 in Shanghai. Toward the end of 2006, the commission completed a draft agreement concerning the dissemination of information about water quality to be done by each party—the document has been submitted to Beijing for approval (Kazakhstan Today, November 3, 2006). The fundamental stakes of extracting water from these two rivers, however, are not mentioned in any of the official texts signed by both nations or by the Commission (Eurasia Insight, November 24, 2004). The problem has therefore yet to be properly addressed. This is in spite of Kazakhstan’s agreement in 2001 to yield to China an additional 300 square kilometers of land so that Beijing could ensure its control over the watershed of the Kara-Irtysh, something it did even though the border treaties of 1996 and of 1997 supposedly resolved all territorial issues.

As long as the negotiations remain bilateral, Kazakhstan will have difficulties in making itself heard. The Kazakh authorities remain domestically vulnerable to criticisms over their political opposition on the transboundary rivers issue, and China’s attitude reinforces already prevalent concerns within Kazakh society about its intentions in the region. It is, however, possible that Russia will become more involved in the debate. Since 2004, President Vladimir Putin has seconded Astana’s proposal to set up a tripartite commission, and several regional governors, including that of Omsk, raised the issue repeatedly throughout 2005 and 2006 [9]. It is equally likely that negotiations will be held within the framework of the SCO, possibly during the discussions scheduled for the summer of 2007. To the extent that regional cooperation on economic issues develops, the issue of finding ways to regulate conflicts linked to cross-border rivers will only resurface in increasingly acute fashion. The shared interest both countries have in joint hydroelectric projects demands that they find a mode of regulating the issue that does not penalize either the economic development of Kazakhstan, or that of Xinjiang, and helps to prevent the emergence of strong Sinophobic currents in Kazakh society.


1. T. Kellner, La République populaire de Chine et l’Asie centrale post-soviétique: étude de politique étrangère, PhD, Genève, Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, 2004.

2. B. Temirbolat. “Mezhdu Kazakhstanom i Kitaem mozhet nachat’sia konflikt iz-za vody,” Tsentral’naia Azia: politika i ekonomika, no. 1, 2000.

3. S. Schafarenko. “Black Irtysh river endangered by irrigation channel,” European Rivers Network, November 1999, https://www.rivernet.org/ob/irtysh.htm.

4. Water resources of Kazakhstan in the new Millennium, UNDP, 2004, p. 41.

5. E. W. Sievers, “Transboundary jurisdiction and watercourse law: China, Kazakhstan, and the Irtysh,” Texas International Law Journal, Winter 2002, p. 7.

6. “Murat Auezov rassuzhdaet ob ekologicheskikh problemakh, i ne tol’ko o nikh,” Megalopolis, no. 3, November 22, 2000.

7. A. Mukhamberdiarova, “Kazakhstan-Kitai: reshenie vodnoi problemy opiat’ otkladyvaetsa,” Almaty, Institut voiny i mira, www.caapr.kz.

8. A. D. Riabtsev, “Sushchestvuiushchii opyt vodnymi resursami na transgranichnykh rekakh,” April 2006, https://www.cawater-info.net/library/rus/ryabtsev_rus.pdf.

9. Opening speech by Russian president Vladimir Putin at Russian-Kazakhstan talks, Astana, January 9, 2004, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, January 12, 2004, https://www.ln.mid.ru/bl.nsf/0/eaff7376a8a4bbc7c3256e19004b976c?opendocument.