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

Kyrgyzstan: Rising Lake Threatens Shoreline

Beaches and basements are disappearing under water as Kyrgyzstan’s huge lake Issykkul rises inexorably.
By Mavluda Japarova
Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issykkul is rising, swamping the shoreline and threatening the environment, but experts disagree on why it is happening and what should be done about it.



What is clear, however, is that after nearly 150 years of declining water levels, the huge lake in the country’s north is now rising fast. Since 1999, levels have increased by almost 12 centimetres a year, leading to fears that existing hotels and those currently under construction along the lakeside could one day be unusable.



Damage has already been done to garages and saunas near the lake. Some sandy beaches are submerged and the rising water is washing away plants along the shore. Basements and boiler rooms have also been flooded, allowing fuel to seep into the lake and contaminate the water.



The head of the Cruise yacht club, Olga Ilchishina, says the club’s pier has been submerged and a canoe shed has sunk into the water.



Scientists have mixed views about the reason for the sudden rise, with many suggesting that it is connected with global warming.



Vladimir Romanovsky, head of the water resources laboratory at the Institute for Water Problems and Hydroelectric Energy has studied Issykkul for over 30 years and is one of those who believes warmer temperatures are causing the glaciers on Kyrgyzstan’s massive mountain ranges to melt into Issykkul.



His colleague at the institute, Vladimir Matychenkov, agrees.



“There are many reasons for the rising level of Issykkul. The main one is global warming, which has caused glaciers on the northern ridge of the Kungei Alatoo range to melt by 25 per cent,” said Matychenkov.



According to data from the observation station at Cholpon-Ata on the north side of the lake, ambient temperatures in the area around the lake have risen by between one and 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last 45 years, while the area of the lake that freezes over in winter is shrinking year by year.



Some groups such as the Gottfried Merzbacher Ecological Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the glaciers, blame gold mining for causing the ice to melt. They say mining, particularly at the Kumtor gold seam which is located high in the mountains, fills the atmosphere with dust which then covers the glaciers, creating a darker surface that absorbs more sunlight, speeding up the melting.



“Every year, the problem of glacier melt will assume increasingly global proportions,” the foundation’s head Chingiz Aitmatov – the country’s most famous writer - told journalists recently.



A youth group called Baisoorun Jashtary distributed a statement early in July alleging that neighbouring Kazakstan and China were the real culprits. They called for the two countries to pay Kyrgyzstan compensation for industrial emissions which, they said, contribute to glacier melting.



Not everyone believes such explanations, however. Glacier specialist Murat Koshoev disagrees that gold mining, heavy industry or indeed melting glaciers are to blame for the swollen lake.



“Even if you were to blow up ten mines like Kumtor, there would still be less dust deposited on the glaciers by the explosion than the natural yearly dusting they get from sandstorms in China and Kazakstan,” he said.



“If one takes the total water flow into Issykkul, then the percentage that comes from glaciers is very small; it’s just an additional component. People who say that intensive melting of glaciers raises the water level are just speculating.”



Koshoev said that historically, water levels in the lake have always varied depending on how much rain falls, how much water evaporates, and tectonic shifts which alter the shape of the lake bed. For example, even though levels are rising, about a metre of water is still lost to evaporation every year.



What makes it harder to predict what the lake will do next – either recede as part of a natural fluctuation in level, or continue its advance to swamp hotels and homes - is that Kyrgyzstan cannot afford to fund the amount of research that is needed.



Gennady Shabunin, who heads the Kyrgyz Hydrometry Service’s observation station at the lake, said cutbacks in staff make it hard for his agency to contribute to the debate about why the water is rising or what will happen in future.



He is sure about one thing, however, “The water level has risen significantly and continues to rise.”



Mavluda Japarova is an IWPR trainee. Sultan Kanazarov is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.