Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

China's Dangerous Thirst

Kazakstan accuses China of depriving it of vital water supplies.

China's growing thirst for river water near its western borders is raising fears of major ecological catastrophe in Kazakstan.

The Ili and Irtish rivers are being increasingly drained to serve Chinese industrial needs, greatly reducing the water supply to Kazakstan.

About 2.5 million people live in the Irtish river basin in

Kazakstan. Its waters serve large industrial centres, like

Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar, as well as numerous

small towns and villages.

The reduced flow has also lowered the level of the river Zaisan,

decreasing fish reserves, turning farmland into desert and cutting back

animal feed stocks.

Even greater problems could arise in the Balkhash river basin if China siphons off too much water. Experts believe this could bring a catastrophe to rival the drastic shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Besides the economic and ecological impact, the reduction in water

flow is having important political repercussions.

According to Liudmila Guseva, a researcher at the Kazakstan Institute of Strategic Studies, competing demands on river water are creating a real threat to regional security for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Tension between Beijing and Astana over the Ili and Irtish

go back to the late 1970s when Kazakstan, then a Soviet republic, started complaining that China was taking too much out of the two rivers.

The two then agreed to talks over regulating water usage but nothing came of it. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the Irtish is an international waterway passing through China, Kazakstan and Russia, which means each of these countries has a right to regulate its flow.

The issue was constantly put on the back burner because of

more immediate economic and political problems.

But since 1994, the Kazak foreign ministry has redoubled its efforts to make China come to an agreement.

Astana stepped up diplomatic pressure when China began putting the final touches to a channel redirecting sections of the Irtish towards the Karamai oil works in the Tsintsian autonomous region, not far from Urumchi.

Kazak experts judged this could have a very adverse effect downstream

in Kazakstan. In 1997, Kazak diplomats tried to involve Moscow in

tripartite negotiations as Russia also depended on Irtish.

China, however, insisted on bilateral negotiations only, because Beijing fears it might lose out to experienced Russian negotiators, Kazak commentator Boris Shantarov believes.

To date, Kazakstan's ambassador to China, Kuahsh Sultanov, has held eleven meetings with Chinese officials. Consultative groups from both sides have had four rounds of negotiations.

The Chinese have prolonged negotiations under various pretexts while busily continuing construction of the Irtish channel.

In March, another round of talks began in Almaty. The two sides

produced a draft agreement on cooperation over the river water dispute. They scheduled another meeting of the joint working group for this summer in Beijing.

The two countries are keen not fall out over the water issue, as in recent years they've established quite close relations.

"The Chinese side has confirmed that river water utilisation should not proceed in a way that will harm the other side," said Asan

Kojanov, chairman of the committee on CIS affairs at the Kazakstan foreign ministry.

The Chinese Ambassador to Kazakstan, Li Khuei, said Beijing is taking

the interests of Kazakstan into consideration and has no intention of

harming its ecology.

The director of the Kazak Institute of Geography, Igor Severski, says the main difficulty is a lack of clear international standards on river water disputes. In their absence, countries have to try to hammer out bilateral agreements, with varying degrees of success.

The Kazak-Chinese negotiations have been conducted in a

characteristically Oriental manner. The two sides meet, express mutual

sympathy and do nothing. Nobody is betting on the projected Beijing

meeting to produce anything more concrete.

Altinai Mukhamberdiarova is a regular IWPR contributor