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News: January 2011

THE POWER OF WATER: A WAKE-UP FOR KAZAKHS

Source: The Times of Central Asia, C. van der Leeuw, 28.01.2011

For decades, experts of varying creed have sent their warnings into the public domain: whereas energy resources have been the champion cause of major-scale armed confrontations in the 20th century, water is bound to become the main source of conflict in the of the century.

Almost everywhere in the world, so-called emerging economies lack either directly accessible energy resources or water. In contrast to oil, gas and minerals, water under international law is considered a communal asset disregarding national boundaries. Simply said: whereas having fuel is not considered a basic human right, having water is. Therefore, there can never be any bargains over water based on a single party's either commercial or national interests.

Unfortunately, such bargains are on top of regional agendas these days and for global agendas in the near 2. Central Asia's emerging economies varying from mighty China to tiny Kyrgyzstan aspire to become "westernised" nations in terms of prosperity, and all are quite ready to leave losers such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which could be dubbed submerging economies, in the dung for it. The interests are simply too enormous - and water is becoming a core instrument to serve them. Hard cross-border bargains are being pushed for, which pulls Russia, China and the newly independent ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia cruelly out of their splendid isolation. To the south, the large rivers Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya and to lesser extents the Chu keep Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan from drying out. The extents to which they do so are getting shorter by the decade, and both agriculture and industry are facing setbacks as a result of it as language used in the dispute is getting tougher by the year.

Further to the north, however, the rising tension over water is less publicised but all the more acute for it. The two main rivers in the area, the Irtysh and the Hi, have their sources on Chinese territory, and only minor tributaries springing from the Kazakh part of the Altay. Kazakhstan's north is at the heart of the government's ambitious plans to modernise and expand the heavy industry to which the area has been home ever since Stalin "evacuated" the sector under the threat of the Second World War. Moreover, the Kazakhs want to strengthen their position on the international grain market by reviving the so-called Virgin Lands campaign first launched under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, which is also located in the north.

For both schemes, apart from astronomic amounts of cash, hardly less impressive amounts of energy and water are a prerogative. The two are closely related, since coal, now widely used as an industrial energy resource, can be expected to start depleting in the course of the current century. Gas is within reach, but long-term exportation contracts with Gazprom, which are needed for cash provisions, prevent it from being used or a large scale. This leaves water, with half a dozen major-size hydropower stations and over a dozen smaller ones working at less than half of their capacity for sheer lack of water in the country.

According to recent statements published by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda from Dr. Talgat Zeinullin, director general of Kazhydromet, Kazakhstan's national research and monitoring institute of hydrology and meteorology, Kazakhstan's rivers together carry in 115.8 cubic kilometres of freshwater per annum. Just over half of that amount, or 58.8 cubic kilometres, comes from outside. The Hi accounts for ISckm a year of water flow (excluding intake), 12ckm of which comes from China. Depending on annual climatic fluctuations, China's intake oscillates around 2 cubic kilometres a year on average. Should this rise to an average of 3.5ckm, the very existence of Lake Balkhash, the region's most important water basin half of which consists of freshwater and the other half of mildly-salty water, is to come under threat, Dr. Zeinullin warns. Only in the last couple of years its level has dropped by almost half a metre, and in the freshwater part the level of salt in the water is on the rise. To stabilize the situation at least 12ckm per annum is needed - to reverse it, more, the scientist observes.

The situation concerning the Irtysh is even more alarming. Before it crosses the border, China derives 5.5 cubic kilometres each year from its original 11.4ckm resources. Ambitious industrialization projects in the northwest of China's autonomous province of Xinjiang, where the unruly Uygur live, should bring the prosperity needed to pacify the ethnic situation. But an intake of 8ckm per annum on Chinese territory will virtually dry up the Kazakh industrial centres of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar, and from there as far as Karaganda, Astana and Petropavlovsk. From there, the problem (in more than one sense) ripples into Russia's southern Siberian industrial centres. Oddly enough, this means a chance for the Kazakhs, who are hardly in a position to negotiate with China on their own, to gain clout along with the Kremlin in settling things with the Celestial Empire. And even then, bargains will be hard to drive - meaning that abovemen-tioned observers are right and water has already moved from Santa Claus to the negotiation table.