Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 178

Russian regional officials, water management experts, and media have reiterated their earlier warnings that Russia could suffer economic and ecological damage as a result of Beijing’s plans to siphon off some of the waters of the Irtysh River into western China.

Notably, Izvestiya ran an article entitled, “China Will Wrestle Water from Siberia.” China’s planned project to divert waters from the Irtysh River could have “catastrophic consequences for several Siberian regions,” according to the newspaper (Izvestiya, September14).

The Chinese are currently using about 10% percent of the river’s capacity, said Sergei Yeremin, deputy head of the Russian environmental agency Rosprirodnadzor in Omsk region. China plans to divert some 25% of the river by 2020 or raise its Irtysh water use by 1-1.5 cubic kilometers per annum, he said.

Chinese authorities have provided little information on the canal project, but Chinese officials have indicated they were going to use no more than 40% of the river.

Russians have been upset by China’s reluctance to discuss the issue. Irtysh Shipping (Irtyshskoye Parokhodstvo) held a seminar on the problem and invited Chinese representatives, but, “They simply ignored us,” complained the company’s CEO, Ivan Yanovsky.

Omsk governor Leonid Polezhayev reportedly approached Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russian Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and urged him to address the issue. However, there has been no formal reaction from Russia’s top officials so far. Izvestiya claimed that China has declined to negotiate on the problem.

It is an international problem, but China is refusing to start a dialogue, Polezhayev told the newspaper. We do not know any details about the Chinese project, he conceded. The Irtysh is a trans-boundary 4,500-kilometer river and regional stability depends on it, he added (Izvestiya, September14).

On the eve of his September 23-26 trip to Beijing, Mironov repeated previous pronouncements of official optimism. Bilateral economic and trade ties are growing rapidly, he said. Russia and China are due to become top trading partners for one another, Mironov said in an Interfax news agency interview (Interfax, September19). But there is no indication that he plans raise the issue of trans-border rivers with Chinese officials.

Since the mid-1990s, Russian and Kazakh non-governmental organizations have voiced concerns over China’s plan to build a 300-kilomer-long and 22-meter-wide irrigation canal. Known as Black Irtysh-Karamai, the canal will carry water from the upper Irtysh to an oil-rich region close to the Uighur town of Urumqi. The Chinese reportedly plan to divert 450 million cubic meters of water per year from the Irtysh, with an eventual projected increase to 1.5 billion cubic meters.

The Irtysh basin stretches from the Altai Mountains in China to Russia, where the river flows into the Ob River after crossing eastern Kazakhstan. Since the total volume of water provided by the Irtysh is approximately 9 billion cubic meters, the planned diversion could have disastrous repercussions not only for the economy and environment of Russia, but also of Kazakhstan.

More than one million people in Russia could be left without adequate water supplies in case of uncontrolled water diversion from the Irtysh, argued Alexander Scherbakov, head of Rosprirodnadzor in Omsk region. Furthermore, some 2.5 million people could be affected in Kazakhstan, he said.

Currently, the Irtysh-Karaganda canal makes agriculture possible in central Kazakhstan. Major industrial facilities are located along the Irtysh River, which also provides drinking water to the capital, Astana, as well as to three other major cities: Karaganda, Semipalatinsk, and Pavlodar. If China increases its use of the Irtysh, then the reserves of drinking water in Astana and a number of other major towns in Kazakhstan will be sharply reduced.

In 2001, Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement on regular consultations between the two countries regarding trans-border water management. However, annual meetings of the joint Kazakh-Chinese intergovernmental commission have yielded no significant results so far. China reportedly insisted that other parties should be excluded from talks on the issue.

As Kazakhstan’s official position was seen as weak, in February 2002 the Kazakh civic group Azat opted to send a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian State Duma, urging Moscow to intervene with China over the Irtysh issue. However, there have been no signs that Russia intends to raise the Irtysh problem with China.

Renewed fears over China’s plans to divert water from the Irtysh followed rumors of possible Russian water sales to China, including possibly diverting water from Lake Baikal in Siberia to China’s Inner Mongolia. But last May Chinese officials dismissed these allegations.

Nonetheless, in August 2005 15 scientists from China and Russia carried out the first joint research mission to explore the environment around Lake Baikal in Siberia. The mission was supposed to “serve as a platform for a long-term scientific partnership between China and Russia,” according to Sun Jiulin, chief scientist for the Chinese team (Xinhua, September 6).

But Chinese officials were careful not to leave any impression that they had sent a mission to check Baikal water quality for future imports. Even before the mission started, Tao Baoxiang, head of the research team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the mission was not supposed to explore ways to divert water from Baikal to China (Xinhua, August 5). Yet it remains to be seen whether official Chinese denials could alleviate Russian fears of loosing Siberian waters to China.