Trans-boundary water resources, particularly rivers are like arteries of life for the sharing countries. To serve the best interests of all partners, it is imperative to remain focused on their responsible and equitable use.
There are certain rivers shared by China, Kazakhstan and Russia. The case in point is the western areas of China that border with Kazakhstan and Russia.
The Chinese program for the development of the western areas and the resettlement of the population (Han Chinese) of the central and southern regions of the country in the semi-arid north-western territories risks loss of crucial water supplies to Kazakhstan and Russian Siberia. Beijing has conducted talks on the cross-border rives with a view to extract maximum benefit for itself. The logical conclusion of such negotiations would be that about 90% of water resources in questions would be absorbed inside the territory of China.
The policy of Beijing in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region since 1990s has been in accordance with the strategic concept of ‘great development of the west.’ This strategy is divided into goals in three phases and will culminate in 2050.
The first phase (2001-2010) has been implemented already. This has led to primary industrialization of the western provinces of China and given an average annual GDP growth of 10%. The second phase (current to 2030) prioritizes industrial modernization. The third stage (up to 2050) provides for the establishment of modern industries with high content of the latest achievements of science and technology.
However, the main component is the human capital, which is actively moved from the central and southern regions of China to Xinjiang. Until recently, the region was sparsely populated fringe of China, where lived mostly the ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and some Han Chinese. But over the last 15 years the population of Xinjiang has increased more than 20 times and is about 25 million people (half of which – the ethnic Han Chinese).
Numerous rivers in the region originate from China and flow through the territory of Kazakhstan and Russia, including the Black Irtysh, which is the main tributary of Irtysh. Under the development plan for the western provinces, China plans to build a number of hydro-objects on Irtysh River. This includes the largest Tsyaobate hydro power plant in the region. Seventeen reservoirs by China are either already in operation or nearing completion.
The water is mainly directed for irrigation of the virgin lands. A channel to the Karamay city was built where oil extraction is planned. If the Chinese plan proceeds as envisaged, it may leave the Bukhtarma Shulbinsky reservoir without water. The Lake Zaisan may face the threat of extinction.
The experts believe that the plan of China to divert the shared rivers for domestic use, if executed without diligence, may spell economic and environmental disaster. The total discharge in Black Irtysh is 9 cubic kilometers per year. China has officially announced that it will draw 6 cubic kilometers of water from this river annually.
However, based on the analysis of the design of hydraulic structures capabilities that are already built in Karamay county (or planned for construction) in Xinjiang, the withdrawal of water can reach about 8 cubic kilometers. That will leave almost nothing for the lower riparian.
The second major trans-boundary river Ili is also on the verge of extinction. Its water is needed for the cultivation of cotton and grain in Xinjiang region of China.
In addition, the growing population of the region requires an increase in drinking water and energy consumption. To do this, on the tributaries of the Irtysh and Ili are built reservoirs, dams and hydroelectric power plants.
This is a source of major concern for Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has already noted the disappearance of floodplain meadows along the Irtysh, which has extremely negative impact on the agricultural sector of a number of regions of the country.
Similar problems have emerged downstream in the territory of Russia. Thus, the construction of a new irrigation canal Hailar-Dalainor, which further takes at least one cubic kilometers of water per year of the Irtysh, has led to the beginning of the process of desertification of the Omsk region of Russia. The disappearance of some species of flora and fauna in the reserves has already been noted.
In fact, the problem of the gradual decline of the water level in the trans-boundary rivers began to form from the beginning of the 1990s. Kazakhstan is attempting to resolve the water problem since 1994. In 2001 the Kazakh-China Joint Commission on the use and protection of trans-boundary rivers was established. Any tangible results are still awaited. The Commission is discussing the exchange of data on chemical indicators of water and how to prevent natural disasters during the spring floods. The question of the division of water remains unresolved.
Part of the problem is that Beijing has refused to accede to the Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes and the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which provide for collective bargaining of all countries in the River Runoff. China, while delaying the ratification of the Convention, prefers to conduct the dialogue with each of the parties separately. There are separate sets of dialogue with Kazakhstan and Russia. The lack of disclosure by China on construction of objects on the trans-boundary rivers leading to withdrawal of water is also a factor.
There is another aspect.
In addition to Kazakhstan and Russia, some other countries may get affected by the water management plans of China.
China is considering some projects to manage the water resources of TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) in western China. TAR is the main donor to some major cross-border rivers in the region including the Yellow River, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahamputra, Indus, and Sutlej. The reduction of parent tributaries of these rivers may affect water supplies to beneficiary countries.
The delay by China to join the Helsinki Convention and the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and the desire to negotiate on bilateral basis, is a source of complication. There is the likelihood that the idea behind this approach could be to wait till the implementation of the industrial construction plans i.e. up to 2025-2030. This may sound like a good strategy because by that time China will have in place all the infrastructure it needs to withdraw water volumes it needs, but it will have its own repercussions. China has very broad-based relations with Russia and Kazakhstan and there is hardly any wisdom in bruising those relations for the sake of some immediate gains.
One way to deal with this issue is for the countries which have water resources shared with China, to establish joint dialogue with China. This may lead to joint mechanisms and balance of interests. Otherwise, water may become a source of political and economic tension and, in this case, one of the worst affected countries could be Kazakhstan. /// nCa, 16 Oct