Could Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash Become the Next Aral Sea?
Lake Balkhash, the largest freshwater lake in Central Asia, could be headed for a similar fate as its salty cousin, the Aral Sea. An environmental crisis looms due to growing water demand upstream on the Ili River in China and increasing evaporation brought on by climate change. Inefficient enforcement mechanisms and lack of systems for monitoring transboundary water management between China and downstream Kazakhstan aggravate the situation and pose significant threats to around 3.3 million people living in the Balkhash basin.
Expansion of agriculture on the Ili River in China, which is a source of 80 percent of the lake’s water inflows, is the major factor contributing to decreasing water levels in Balkhash. For the last two decades, China has increased its irrigated crop area by approximately 30 percent and is planning to boost rice production, which will put additional pressure on water consumption from the Ili. While downstream Kazakhstan also uses water from the lower basin for agriculture, its water usage is significantly smaller and has not drastically changed over the years. The absence of efficient water-saving irrigation technologies and practices only adds to the current problem. Although the agreements on cooperation on the use and protection of transboundary rivers have been put in place between Kazakhstan and China, the poor monitoring and data management system prevents the two sides from effectively coordinating and regulating their activities.
If not adequately addressed, growing demand for water needed to “provide food and power to the burgeoning populations in the region” could significantly increase the frequency and intensity of water shortages in Balkhash, as demonstrated in a recent Oxford University study. According to the paper, in a series of 738 simulations evaluating the impact of hydro-climatic changes and water demand development on the vulnerability of the Ili-Balkhash basin (IBB), the latter was identified as the biggest deciding element in the assessment analysis. The results also show that the “water flows are particularly sensitive to changes in precipitation” that are increasingly fluctuating due to climate change. Rising air temperatures are also leading to the melting of glaciers that feed the Ili River, putting additional strain on the basin’s water resources.
The environmental crisis is also aggravated by water pollution from the mining operations in its catchment area. The Balkhash Mining and Metallurgic Combine annually emits around 600 thousand tons of industrial waste, including lead, zinc, and copper. Balkhash also suffers from water contamination originating from upstream industry in China, which makes it difficult for the local agencies to monitor and regulate pollution levels effectively.
Failure to address the problem in the Ili-Balkhash basin could result in a repeat of the Aral Sea disaster, with biodiversity loss, water and food security threats for the coastal populations, and consequent outmigration of these communities. To prevent this, increased cooperation between Kazakhstan and China, setting sustainable water usage limits for irrigation, introducing better agricultural practices, monitoring pollution levels, as well as establishing working groups to develop new regulations for an effective water management are key steps in mitigating the issue.