Central Asia: Low water levels on Irtysh River create quandary for Kazakhstan

Central Asia: Low water levels on Irtysh River create quandary for Kazakhstan
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov (center right) and China’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Du Dewen, speak during a recent tour of the Sary-Jaz River where Kyrgyzstan is aiming to build a hydropower project with Chinese assistance. / gov.kg
By Eurasianet August 15, 2023


The Irtysh River, which originates in China and then flows into Kazakhstan and Russia, is experiencing its lowest water levels since the late Soviet era. Drought, which has become increasingly common in Central Asia, is cited as a contributing factor. But perhaps the most significant cause is China's increased water consumption, including the diversion of water for agricultural and other needs, as well as the construction of multiple dams along the upper reaches of the river, according to a report distributed by InBusiness.kz. “The Chinese side reduced the runoff in the Irtysh basin by 21.5% (2.1 km3). Also, the PRC side reduced the flow of water through the Balkhash-Alakol basin by 15.3% (2.3 km3),” the publication quotes representatives of the Kazakh Ecology Ministry’s Water Resources Committee as saying. So far, the most serious impacts have been felt in downstream regions of Russia, including Omsk, Tyumen and Sverdlovsk, where low water levels have disrupted barge traffic. Russian officials are reporting a substantial drop in revenue for river cargo haulers and the regional fishing sector. They are blaming primarily Kazakhstan for the problem. InBusiness.kz quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying; "Kazakhstan sends us little water. As a result, not only the Irtysh is becoming shallow, but the water level in the Tobol and Siberia rivers is also falling." The Irtysh’s low flow can have some serious environmental ramifications for Kazakhstan; in particular, it can potentially result in the shrinking of Lake Balkhash. “Not only production and agriculture in East Kazakhstan, but also Central Kazakhstan, including Astana, depend on the water resources of the Irtysh,” the InBusiness report states. “This river is a kind of donor that feeds local rivers and lakes. If the Irtysh dries up, everything will turn into a desert.”

China and Kazakhstan have finalised an agreement that permits visa-free, multiple-entry travel between the two countries. Under the agreement, citizens of one country can remain in the other for up to 90 days over a six-month period. There is no limit to the number of crossings a visitor can make during that timeframe. The travel regime covers such purposes as “private affairs, tourism, medical treatment, international transportation, transit and business negotiations.”

The Chinese automaker Geely has signed a deal to begin selling the company’s Zeekr brand of electric vehicles in Kazakhstan, the Kursiv news outlet reported in early August. Geely’s Kazakh partner in the project, Evolux Auto, agreed to open eight Zeekr dealerships across the Central Asian nation, offering a limited selection of models at first. The agreement also outlines plans to "develop a network of electric charging stations throughout the country, including intercity destinations." Founded in 1986, Geely is China’s seventh-largest automaker. The company launched the Zeekr brand in 2021.


Kyrgyzstan is aiming to revive a long-dormant hydropower project with Chinese assistance on the Sary-Jaz River, one of the largest rivers traversing the Central Tien Shan mountain range, not far from the countries’ shared border. Kyrgyz Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov and China’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Du Dewen, recently toured the potential project region. A Kyrgyz government statement said plans for the construction of six hydro-power plants with a generating capacity of 1100 MW on the Sary-JazRiver date back to the mid-1980s. “But over the years of [Kyrgyzstan’s] independence, the project was never implemented,” the statement added. Japarov is expected to hold discussions with potential investors during an upcoming trip to China later this month. In late July, Kyrgyz officials signed an investment agreement with a Chinese-led consortium concerning a hydro-power project called the Kazarman HPP cascade.

Kyrgyzstan is set to host a meeting of the Council of CIS Heads of State on October 13. An invitation has also been extended to the secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Zhang Ming. CIS Secretary-General Sergei Lebedev noted that “good contacts have been established with the SCO and Zhang Ming,” the BelTA news agency reported. 

China and Kyrgyzstan are expanding a border crossing complex at Irkeshtam, aiming to ease delays for the overland transport of goods between the two countries. Kyrgyzstan’s Transport Ministry has described the backlog of truck traffic at the Kyrgyz-Chinese border as “quite serious,” citing the mountainous terrain and underdeveloped infrastructure as the main causes. The expansion at the Irkeshtam border crossing will enable up to 1,200 vehicles per day to transit the frontier, up from the present capacity of about 160 vehicles per day.

Kyrgyzstan is looking to expand fish farming capacity with an eye towards boosting exports to China, the Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper reports, citing an official at the Agriculture Ministry. The official said that countries are currently working out health standards and inspection procedures to facilitate exports. No target date has been set for the launch of the export initiative.


China has become the main supplier of trucks to Uzbekistan. According to Uzbekistan’s Statistics Agency, China accounts for 97% of imports to Uzbekistan. Overall, 33,450 Chinese trucks were sold in Uzbekistan during the January-June period this year. South Korea and Poland accounted for the bulk of the remaining foreign truck sales. The cumulative value of all trucks imported by Uzbekistan during the first half of 2023 amounted to $143mn.

The first freight train carrying parts for a solar-power project to be built in Uzbekistan departed the Chinese city of Xi’an in early August, Chinese state media reported. The solar power project was one of many deals signed on the sidelines of the China-Central Asia summit in May. The project is projected to have a generating capacity of 1 GW. In all, 60 Chinese freight trains hauling an estimated 3,000 containers will be needed to deliver all the required parts, mainly photovoltaic cells.


Exploring ways to reduce a regional trade imbalance with China was a central topic of discussion at an early August meeting in Ashgabat attended by the presidents of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – Serdar Berdimuhamedov, Emomali Rahmon and Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Participants expressed a desire to boost PRC-bound exports via existing rail links connecting the countries. A Turkmen Foreign Ministry statement “noted that this transit corridor can be effectively used for cargo transportation in the [eastward] direction, with further access to China.”

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.


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