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Efforts under way to save Lake Balkhash

[Kazakhstan] Scores of ships remain stranded in the Aral Sea.
David Swanson/IRIN
Scores of ships remain stranded in the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world
Efforts are under way to agree to an eco-based system which will promote sustainable development at Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash and prevent further environmental damage to waters and wetlands, say specialists. At the same time, environmentalists say there are indications that the lake could shrink and become as environmentally-ravaged as the Aral Sea.

“The aim of the plan is to ensure environmental sustainability in the basin,” Talaibek Makeyev, executive director of the non-profit Central Asian Regional Environmental Centre (CAREC), told IRIN.

Central Asia’s second biggest lake

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says Balkhash – the world’s 15th largest lake and Central Asia’s second largest - is becoming shallower and more saline, with water levels declining since 1960. This, says UNEP, is due to evaporation and increased extraction of water from two main feeder rivers, the Ili - flowing from China - and the Karatal, to irrigate crops. According to Makeyev, agriculture is the largest water consumer in the area.

The 600 km-long lake – which is fresh water in the west and salt in the east - sits in the Ili-Balkhash basin, a unique eco-system covering some 400,000 square kilometres, larger than the combined size of Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium. Some 20 per cent of Kazakhstan’s 15 million population lives in the basin.

Lake Balkhash

The 600 km-long lake – which is fresh water in the west and salt in the east - sits in the Ili-Balkhash basin, a unique eco-system covering some 400,000 square kilometres, larger than the combined size of Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium. Some 20 per cent of Kazakhstan’s 15 million population lives in the basin.

Pollution

In addition to declining water levels, the lake is threatened by industrial and agricultural pollution. The town of Balkhash is home to a copper smelter, which environmentalists say pollutes the water and surrounding areas.

Since Soviet times there have been plans to build a nuclear power plant at Balkhash which environmentalists have been lobbying against. In March, Energy Minister Bakhtykozha Izmukhambetov said that a thermal energy plant may be built at Balkhash, instead, to meet growing energy requirements.

Water management, pricing

While experts agree that industrial pollution is a major problem at the lake, they say that a greater challenge is water management.

“When it comes to the water of the Ili-Balkhash basin, the problem is linked to correct use of water rather than pollution,” Alexander Nikolayenko, project manager at the UNDP’s National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan for Kazakhstan, told IRIN. “There is enough water. The main problem is not the presence or absence of water but it being used normally.”

One of the main problems affecting what European Commission project manager Laula Nugmanova describes as “uncontrolled water use” is the lack of an effective pricing system for water, with tariffs not reflecting market prices.

CAREC is leading moves backed by the European Commission - which is providing 700,000 euros of funding - to agree a plan for integrated management of Ili-Balkhash.
A conference in March co-sponsored by the European Commission and Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry confirmed several key objectives, including:
- preserving the lake’s ecosystems;
- ensuring efficient water use for economic activities;
- reducing water loss; and
- building up environmentally-friendly activities, sustainable energy and agriculture.

China, Kyrgyzstan

Efforts to save Lake Balkhash draw in Kazakhstan’s neighbours - China and Kyrgyzstan, where the basin’s rivers flow. The 1,400-km River Ili, which provides most of Lake Balkhash’s water, originates in China. As industry expands to feed China’s fast-growing economy and as China pursues its Go West policy to populate the Xinjiang area bordering Kazakhstan and turn it into a magnet for investors, water consumption is rising.

Kazakhstan has an agreement with China on exchange of environmental information, but a frank discussion on reducing water consumption is needed, says Kazakh water issues analyst Malik Burlibayev.

“China is cautious” about releasing precise figures on water consumption, Burlibayev told IRIN. “To save Balkhash it is primarily the quantity [of consumption that needs regulating], and this is not regulated by the talks – we have not got that far,” he said.

Trilateral treaty plan

There are plans to set up a working group comprising China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss a draft trilateral treaty on managing the basin. Three meetings are planned for this year, beginning in July.

The draft of an integrated management plan for the Ili-Balkhash basin is expected to be finished by September, after which it will be put to the Kazakh government and parliament.

Water purification

This year, the government adopted a separate strategy for sustainable development in the area, Olga Suvorova, head of the Environment Ministry’s ecological monitoring division, told IRIN. The programme, in place until 2009, aims to resolve hydro-ecological problems, raise living standards and preserve the eco-system. The government’s overall environment strategy for 2008-2010 includes constructing facilities to purify the waters of Lake Balkhash, estimated to require funding of over US $8 million.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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