The Ebb and Flow of Kazakhstan’s Agricultural Prospects
Kazakhstan’s historical role as an agricultural exporter may be in troubled waters despite foreign investment. Dutch agribusiness investors promised $232 million to bolster food security and economic well-being through improving greenhouse infrastructure and existing technology. This investment cannot have long-term success; however, if water inflows from riparian neighbors continue to decrease.
In 2019 alone, Kazakhstan sold around 600,000 tons of tomatoes and 100,000 tons of cucumbers to Russia. With investment into additional greenhouses those numbers would continue to grow. In addition, Nur-Sultan is attempting to increase the export volume of oilseeds such as flax, sunflower, and soy, which are popular in neighboring markets such as China, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Though continuing positive trends seem to bolster Kazakhstan’s agricultural export sector, water remains a factor in Kazakhstan’s capacity to export food.
While the agribusiness investment discussions were underway in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakhstani Minister of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources negotiated with his counterpart in Tajikistan to increase waterflow from the Bahri Tojik reservoir to Kazakhstan. Tajikistan will allow for an additional 315 million cubic meters of water, or roughly three percent of Kazakhstan’s water usage for irrigation in 2019, to be diverted over the next two months. In exchange, Kazakhstan will assist Tajikistan with resources needed to maintain its energy generating capacity. This is important for oil- and natural gas-poor Tajikistan, which relies on the reservoir to operate the Qairoqqum hydropower plant and could face electricity shortages during critical winter months due to the lower water level behind the dam.
The agreement demonstrates the willingness of both parties to reach a mutually beneficial solution to water sharing, but the effects of climate change could make riparian cooperation more difficult. If water scarcity becomes a more pressing issue, Tajikistan will be less willing to deplete its reservoirs, affecting Kazakhstan’s agricultural future. Water scarcity already threatens Kazakhstan, as demonstrated by the shrinking Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash basins. While Tajikistan is willing to negotiate water usage, China’s overuse of the Ili River is limiting water resources in Western Kazakhstan. China may be Kazakhstan’s largest customer for vegetable oil, but if a choice has to be made between less water for Chinese rice or a diminished vegetable oil market, it is unlikely that Beijing would support Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector over its own.
Foreign investment is one way for Kazakhstan to maintain a prominent stake in international agricultural trade, but if water sharing agreements do not remain a central priority or become less viable, water insecurity may threaten nearly seven decades of reliance on agricultural exports.
Photo Source: Talgat Tonybayev/The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan