Central Asia’s largest country is in a slippery situation. Its supply of drinking water per person has decreased from 115 to 91 cubic kilometers over the past 40 years, meaning it could face a severe shortage of the essential ingredient for life.
“Our hydrological experts . . . determined that the river runoff will make up 81 cubic kilometers by 2020, while by 2030 this figure [will go down] to 72 cubic kilometers – with the national consumption rate of 88 cubic kilometers,” Danara Alimbayeva, an official at the Kazakhstan National Hydrometeorological Service, said while addressing a seminar that brought together experts from the five Central Asian countries plus South Korea on Sunday.
“If even today there is not enough water, in 20 years Kazakhstan will definitely run out of drinking water,” she said, according to reports by 24Khabar.
Over the past 100 or so years, the air temperature in Kazakhstan increased by 1.37 degrees centigrade. Scientists predict a further increase by four degrees by 2050. At the same time, nearly 76 percent of Kazakhstani lands are prone to desertification according to National Hydrometeorological Service.
Global warming certainly is not helping the situation in Central Asia, as it is expected to reduce the level of rivers throughout the region by 40 percent, inevitably resulting in large losses of animal and plant life.
Between 2000 and 2009 the five Central Asian Republics, often referred to as “CARs,” lost $5.8 billion dollars due to soil degradation. Kazakhstan is the most affected country, having lost $3 billion.
Water covers about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface but drinking water amounts to only three percent of the total volume of water on the planet. In 2030, the global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent due to climate change, human action, and population growth, according to the predictions endorsed by the United Nations.
Stretching between China and the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan measures over 2.7 million square kilometers (1.05 million square miles), making it the world’s ninth largest country. With a population of nearly 18 million, fresh water is in high demand in Kazakhstan.
While Kazakhstanis living in the large cities do not feel a lack of drinking water, in fact, fresh water is of great value for many regions, especially for those located in the west corner of Kazakhstan.
The total water resources of Kazakhstan’s rivers amount to 101 cubic kilometers, of which 57 cubic kilometers are formed in the territory of the country. The rest comes from neighboring countries – Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
“We are surrounded by those states where water comes from. The economies of these countries are also developing, so, the flow of water from these territories is keeping on sharply reducing,” says Amirkhan Kenshimov, the deputy director of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.
Kenshimov says that to eliminate the problem, Kazakhstan needs to use its own water resources and perhaps ration them. As of today, nearly 70 percent of water resources in the country are used in agriculture.
At the same time, Kazakhstan also has water disputes with neighboring countries, including China.
Transboundary rivers have become a bitterly-contested dispute between Astana and Beijing since 1998, when the authorities of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region launched the construction of the Black Irtysh-Karamay channel, which is designed to divert part of the upper Irtysh to the Karamay oil field near Urumqi.
Considered one of the longest rivers in the world, Irtysh flows through the territory of three countries: China (525 km), Kazakhstan (1,700 km) and Russia (2,010 km). One of its tributaries flows into Balkhash, the largest lake in Kazakhstan and the world’s third largest freshwater lake.
In 2009, Kazakhstan managed to bring this topic to a new level, while in 2011 the two countries agreed that they would divide the water resources of the Irtysh River by 2014. However, no further progress was made in this matter.
Desertification is not unheard of in Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Union left a permanent scar in areas including the Aral Sea basin. Once occupying a territory of more than 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) on the border between southwestern Kazakhstan and northwestern Uzbekistan, the sea’s surface area measures just 17,160 square kilometers (6,626 square miles).
In the 1960s, the sea had an area of seven million hectares, but due to the Soviet Union’s policy, the waters of the Amu Darya River, which used to flow into the Aral, began to sink into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, never reaching the sea. Over time the sea split into what are now two salt lakes: the South Aral Sea, or “Large Sea,” mainly within Uzbekistan’s borders, and the North Aral Sea, also called “The Small Sea,” in Kazakhstan.