Well drilling in the outskirts of Bishkek. The water supply system in Kyrgyzstan's capital is considered obsolete and experts note that substantial renovation is needed to avoid water losses.
Well drilling in the outskirts of Bishkek. The water supply system in Kyrgyzstan's capital is considered obsolete and experts note that substantial renovation is needed to avoid water losses. © IWPR Central Asia

Bishkek Water Shortages Highlight Poor Management

Obsolete infrastructure and bad planning mean issues already aggravated by climate change have got more serious.

Thursday, 13 July, 2023

As sweltering heat envelops Kyrgyzstan, the supply of drinking water in the capital Bishkek has been hit hard. Experts maintain that while climate change has aggravated water shortages in the central Asian country, the underlying problem is poor management. 

Bishkek’s issues began in mid-May, when the mayor’s office temporarily limited the supply of drinking water in the daytime to the capital’s Archa Beshik suburb and some nearby villages.

Those restrictions were prolonged on May 31, a day before new drinking water rates came into effect. Inspectors from the mayor’s office and water companies also ordered the temporary closure of a number of facilities, including private bathhouses, car washes and swimming pools. Citizens were urged to save water.

On June 6 the nighttime supply of drinking water was suspended in more residential areas of the capital, just as temperatures soared to 39.5 degrees. Between June 6 and June 9, temperatures were the hottest on record.

“We would inevitably face this crisis sooner or later…because we have problems with water resource management and irrational use,” climatologist Zoya Kretova told IWPR. “Thirty years of such mismanagement have just been aggravated by climatic challenges.”

She added that, unlike in many other countries, Kyrgyzstan lacked a utility supply, meaning that people used drinking water for everything. 

“We water gardens with drinking water, we wash our cars, we even flush our toilets with it,” she said.

Residents in the capital were furious as they battled shortages amid the soaring heat. 

“The water supply was cut off regularly after 5pm for over a week,” said Altynai, who lives in microdistrict Dzhal-29 in the southern part of Bishkek. “It returned only at midnight or later. In the evening, when we come home from work, we want to eat and have a wash. But with these cuts, you couldn’t take a shower or wash the dishes. And it was almost 40 degrees outside.”

Poor communication only heightened people’s anger. 

“When it comes to paying bills, providers threaten to cut water supply at once, but when it comes to supplying water, it is almost impossible to get through to them,” Altynai concluded.

Residents in Archa Beshik, who appeared to be the worst affected, held a rally on June 7 claiming that they had been left without any water for several days. In response, the supply was restored to the area on June 8. From June 14, water has been supplied to Archa Beshik albeit for a limited number of hours.

Residents in Bishkek have been piling water bottles as water shortages have hit Kyrgyzstan's capital amid soaring temperatures. Experts maintain that while climate change aggravates water problems in the central Asian country, the underlying problem is poor management. © IWPR Central Asia


Officials stated that the problems were a combination of weather conditions and poor water use.

Drinking water is supplied to Bishkek from 37 irrigation intakes from the Orto-Alysh and Ala-Archa deposits. The Orto-Alysh irrigation intake supplies over 40 per cent of the capital’s drinking water. Yet problems began in May because the level of groundwater there was 15-20 metres lower than last year.

“We lack 1,000 cubic metres of water per hour,” Kadyrbek Otorov, chief engineer of Bishkekvodokanal, told IWPR. “In almost 80 per cent of cases, it is due to climatic events because the water-bearing layer is recharged from rivers.”

To improve the situation, Bishkekvodokanal and the Chui Water Management Office signed a contract to refill Orto-Alysh with 11 million cubic metres of water. However, slow runoffs from glaciers and low rainfall in February and March prevented them from fulfilling the contract.

The mayor’s office claimed that the water deficit has been exacerbated by an increase in consumption caused by population growth, as well as by the irrigation of green spaces and gardens. According to Deputy Mayor Zhyrgalbek Shamyraliev, people need 170 litres of water per day to satisfy their daily needs, but in summer people water their gardens, leading to overconsumption. 

To supply drinking water to the city, the mayor’s office has introduced a number of measures, including allocating land plots for expansion of existing irrigation intakes, drilling new wells, and constructing supply lines and pumping stations.

Several Kyrgyz lawmakers have urged the government to build and repair the supply facilities, insufficient for a city with over a million people, as a priority. One deputy, Dastan Bekeshev, even proposed to address the water problems in parliament, but the parliamentary speaker Nurlan Shakiev refused, arguing there was little time and an already full agenda. 

“Even if we discuss it here, there won’t be more water, glaciers won’t melt,“ he said, in comments that led to widespread criticism on social media.

Some lawmakers also proposed initiating a criminal case against the Bishkek mayor’s office for negligence. In the end, the mayor of the capital issued a reprimand to the head of Bishkekvodokanal and others believed to be responsible. 

The head of the cabinet of ministers, Akylbek Zhaparov, said in early July that the issue would “be completely resolved in two-three years”. Amongst other measures, he instructed officials to revise penalties for the use of drinking instead of irrigation water, to plan the construction of a reservoir, and to make calculations for the digital capture of hydrological maps.


“The city’s water supply system is obsolete and has not changed for many years. We do some minor repairs in some situations until we have an accident,” Zhanybek Kulumbetov, an expert in resource efficiency at the Bishkek-based  Unison Group advisory firm, explained to IWPR. “Because of such accidents, water floods streets, and sometimes blows out, sometimes faucets leak. As a result, we lose water.”

Improvements have been discussed for many years, but never implemented.

“We should understand that the level of underground water in the city fell by 15 metres and tomorrow the situation could get even worse,” he continued. “Therefore, the state urgently needs to carry out a comprehensive analysis, develop a strategic plan and start the works.”

Kulumbetov noted that the priority should be to introduce water-efficient technology to reduce waste. Motion sensors for faucets, for instance, only release water when there are hands under the taps. Another option is special aerated showers, which reduce water consumption by 30-40 per cent.

“We have all this equipment in our market,” she said. “If we don’t have something, we should consider tax breaks to allow entrepreneurs to import them from abroad without hindrance.”

The same is true for watering. The widespread implementation of drip irrigation, which delivers water right to the root system, would provide plants with the moisture they need while saving water.

“Drip irrigation projects have been implemented in Batken region [west of the country] and Sokuluk area of Chui region [west of the capital],” Kulumbetov said. “Those projects have been quite successful.”

Economist Marat Musuraliev said that the authorities should have installed water metres a long time ago to save and properly distribute resources, especially for private houses, car washes, bathhouses and gardens.

He added that rates must be revised annually, instead of once every several years, as it would make the costs affordable for customers and enable Bishkekvodokanal and other agencies to upgrade their infrastructure.

“This will make owners introduce water purification systems, which reuse water instead of draining it,” Musuraliev said. “To make the system economically viable, favourable tariff, tax and other conditions must be created."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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