Staunton, October 22 – Lake Balkhash, the 12th largest lake in the world, is on the way to becoming “a second Aral Sea,” a Russian commentator says, but one with potentially even more serious political consequences because both the causes of the lake’s decline and the impact of its death involve not only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but China.
The demise of the Aral Sea and the impact of that development on the peoples of Central Asia have attracted intense international interest for many years, and this fall, the United Nations has organized a special session on how to save that inland sea that many believe is now far beyond the point of no return.
But the similar fate of Lake Balkhash, a 16,400 square kilometer body of water in southeastern Kazakhstan whose waters are fed by rivers rising in and often diverted by Kyrgyzstan and China has not, Vladimir Gavrilenko argues in an essay posted online this week (nsi-press.ru/2010/10/nauka/650).
That is because it, like Baikal, is today “under threat of disappearing.” Over the last several years, the surface area of Balkhash has decreased by some 2,000 square kilometers, “and the situation continues to get worse,” with one part of the lake already saline and the population around all of the lake already suffering from the exposure of chemicals.
According to Gavrilenko, the lake’s decline is entirely the result of human activity, and its approaching death will produce “an ecological catastrophe,” one that will affect not only Kazakhstan but Kyrgyzstan, China’s Xinjiang Province, other countries in Central Asia, and parts of the Russian Federation.
The lake’s decline was accelerated at the end of the last century, he notes, when the Chinese built a dam on the Ili River which had provided Balkhash with most of its water and then proceeded to take out ever greater percentages of its flow, something that has reduced the water level in the lake by two meters.
Given that Chinese demand on this source of water shows no sign of easing, ecologists say that “the Western part of the lake could disappear entirely” in the relatively near future, something that will create economic and health disasters for the three million people living in the region but also likely spark political tensions between Kazakhstan and China.
But China is not the only source of the lake’s problem, Gavrilenko says. People living around the lake, long used to having all the fresh water they wanted, “have not been accustomed to think about its economic use.” Instead, they have wasted enormous amounts of water because of outdated irrigation systems
Moreover, industrial facilities around the lake and along the six feeder rivers have been dumping toxic wastes into the flow, and many cities and towns have put untreated sewage into these rivers and the lake itself. The results should not have surprised anyone, Gavrilenko suggests, and the likely consequences in the future should disturb everyone.
Water shortages symbolized by the death of the Aral Sea have sparked numerous international conflicts, sometimes to the point of violence, among the Central Asian countries, especially between the water supplier countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the one hand, and the downstream consumer countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
The demise of Lake Balkhash almost certainly will increase tensions between Kazakhstan and China, tensions that are likely to be all the greater because the Balkhash crisis unlike the death of the Aral Sea has failed to attract the international attention that might help the people around the lake and cause the two sides to think more rationally about what is taking place.
But perhaps equally important, because the Lake Balkhash problem is so obviously the result of human action, expanded coverage of this environmental tragedy likely will further energize ecological movements in the Russian Federation east of the Urals, all the more so because people there are likely to link water issues to ethno-national ones.