China-Kazakhstan: ongoing transboundary water problems
This coming spring Kazakhstan may, as every year, face a significant decrease of water level in the transboundary rivers with China – the country, which refuses to negotiate the water usage regulations.
There are 23 transboundary rivers between Kazakhstan and China – the largest is Irtysh. Each year, the water level in these rivers is reduced due to a mass diversion of water in China. Beijing refuses to negotiate the water intake level with any country it has the transboundary rivers with. Instead, the country’s officials said, they will continue taking in the water in whatever amounts they need to fully implement all the development plans for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR).
China made its first steps to stimulate XUAR’s economic development back in 1996, when Beijing has increased the size of financial subsidies to the region. Subsequently, the authorities, under the auspices of a large-scale oil and gas exploration and development of the agro-industrial sector of the region, began to pursue a policy of mass migration of the Han ethnic group from the southern and southeastern regions of the country. In less than 10 years, the region’s population grew from 20 million.
In 2016, the number of jobs in XUAR exceeded 45 million, there are plans to create 44 million more new jobs this year. According to the XUAR’s adopted strategy, the population should exceed 150 million people by 2020, while the region’s economy has become one of the fastest growing in China.
China is taking in almost all the water from the transboundary rivers with no regard to the other countries that are located downstream. Currently, the shallow waters of the main inflow of the Irtysh led to the fact that more than half of the inflows of transboundary rivers are in China (5 billion out of 9 billion cubic meters of water).
In addition, China has built a channel from the other transboundary river – Ili, to the western part of the desert of the Tarim Basin, which is called the “bottomless pit” and the “arid Central Asian horror.” Judging by XUAR’s plans for development, in the next 15-20 years the level of Ili’s inflow to Kazakhstan will be reduced by half.
Such policy of the Chinese authorities has already led to the fact that the level of the largest lake in Kazakhstan – Balkhash has dropped by 10 centimeters. This lake just may face the ordeal of the Aral Sea, which has become a major environmental catastrophe in the 20th century.
Ecologists believe, if the Chinese authorities don’t stop taking in water in about 15-20 years the eastern Kazakhstani regions will face a drought.