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KAZAKHSTAN: Balkhash Lake Turning Into Another Aral?

Marina Kozlova - Asia Water Wire*

BALKHASH, Nov 6 2006 (IPS) - Lake Balkhash, one of the largest inland bodies of water on Earth, is in danger of turning into an environmental death zone whose impact would be felt throughout Central Asia.

If China takes more water from the Ili River that flows into Balkhash, “the lake will turn into another Aral (Sea),” warns Mels Eleusizov, the head of Kazakhstan’s ‘Tabigat’ environmental movement and a former presidential candidate.

The Aral, once the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water, has lost three-fourths of its surface area and 90 percent of its volume since the 1960s when huge amounts of its water were used for the irrigation of cotton.

“Balkhash, a shallow lake, is in a very vulnerable position, receiving 80 percent of its water from the Ili that has its source in China (in the northern ranges of the Tien Shan,)” Eleusizov told Asia Water Wire.

China’s demand for water continues to grow, including in its western provinces, and it is constantly looking for ways to feed water to its different regions. In addition, officials in Beijing have been quoted as saying they plan to divert more water from the Ili to develop the oil industry.

“The lake level is kept thanks to global warming and climate change,” continues Eleusizov. “Glaciers have been melting at an increasing pace in recent years. Also, there was higher rainfall, but now the dry years are coming.”

Lake Balkhash in south-eastern Kazakhstan is the 15th largest lake in the world and the second largest in Central Asia. It covers over 16,000 sq km, with a length of 600 km and its width varying from five to 70 km. The average depth of the lake, fresh in the west and salt in the east, is 5.8 m, but its maximum depth reaches 25.6 m.

Three major streams – the Ili, Karatal and Aqsu rivers – feed the lake. The Ili, chief among them, flows from north-western China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region to Kazakhstan.

“The problem of Balkhash arose in the 1960-1970s after the Kapchagai reservoir (along the middle reaches of the Ili) in Kazakhstan had been built (to generate hydroelectric power and develop irrigation agriculture),” Kadylkhan Tokshymanov, head of the movement for the revival of the Balkhash region, a non-governmental organisation based in the town of Balkhash, told AWW. “The natural regime of the lake was broken.”

Since the inauguration of the Kapchagai reservoir, water use has increased along the lower reaches of the Ili. This in turn has led to a decrease in the river’s inflow. From 1972 to 2001, according to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment, the southern part of the lake’s surface decreased by around 150 sq km.

According to Eleusizov, the lake’s water level has fallen by 2.3 m and dust and salt from what used to be its bottom are being blown by the wind and spread across hundreds of kilometres. This hastens the melting of glaciers, and, ultimately, will cause drought and desertification – much of Central Asia’s fresh water supply comprises snow melt carried by large river systems.

The construction of the Kapchagai has also reduced from 60 years to slightly more than 40 years the cycle of the rise and fall in the Balkhash’s water level, says the head of the state inspectorate of the protection of the environment of the town of Balkhash, Rymkul Mashurbekova.

In addition, the work of the industrial association Balkhashtsvetmet – the production of copper, zinc, silver and gold – heavily pollutes the lake and the town of the same name with heavy metals and sulphites, according to UNEP.

“Unfortunately, Balkhashtsvetmet is the largest and practically the only enterprise in the town,” Mashurbekova told the AWW. “Twelve thousand people work for the association and other enterprises service it.”

Bagban Taimbetov, the Karaganda region’s deputy state prosecutor, was reported by the local news agency ‘Kazakhstan Today’ as saying that 1,800 tonnes of dust discarded by Balkhashtsvetmet settles on the surface of the lake annually, including 140 tonnes of copper, 120 tonnes of lead and 135 tonnes of zinc. As much as 600 tonnes of heavy metals and harmful microelements dissolve in the water and settle on the bottom, he says.

In the tissues of the fish caught in Balkhash, continues Taimbetov, chrome content has increased by 13 times, zinc by 11 times, and that of nickel has doubled over the last 10 years. However, the fish is still edible, he remarks.

Seventyeight-year-old Dusya, who preferred to be called only by her first name, says, “The fishery in Balkhash has changed over the last 40 years.”

Sitting with a fishing rod on the shore, Dusya continues, “Earlier, the lake had less water in it, but more fish. Now it has more water (the lake is now going through the years of high-water levels) but fewer fish. I cannot catch large fish – pikeperch or catfish – any more. I catch only small fish.”

Meanwhile, most restaurants and cafes in the town of Balkhash, which has a population of 74,000 and will mark its 70th anniversary next year, do not even carry fish on their menus at all these days. Instead, they offer meat dishes to visitors to this town around the lake.

(*The Asia Water Wire, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific, is a series of features around water and development in the region.)

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