Is Balkhash Facing Fate of Aral Sea?

Via Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, a report on Lake Balkhash’s complex hydro future:

Now Balkhash is a natural site. If a nuclear power plant is built on the lake, it will turn into an industrial pond. It will let China limit the Ili river flow feeding the lake, and the new load on the lake will generally lead to the irreversible degradation of the Balkhash ecosystem. This is what experts told to

Suspended referendum 

The government of Kazakhstan first spoke about construction of the nuclear power plant (NPP) on the shore of Lake Balkhash (Almaty region) at the end of the 1990s. Back then, Minister of Energy Vladimir Shkolnik proposed a joint Kazakhstan-Russia project. The project was drafted, but the Kazakhstan party declined it later. 

In 2006, the idea of NPP construction re-emerged, and the Russia-Kazakhstan enterprise was established specifically for the project. However, at that time they spoke about construction in Aktau (administrative centre of Mangistau region), on the base of MAEK – Mangistau Nuclear Energy Combine. Social activists were against, justifying their position by the NPP management risks and economic infeasibility of the project.

In April 2019, the leader of Russia Vladimir Putin proposed to Kazakh President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev to build a NPP according to Russian technology. In November 2022, deputies of maslikhat (local representative body) of Almaty region resolved to build the NPP on Lake Balkhash. However, on September 1, 2023 Tokayev proposed to hold a referendum in response to public protests so that all Kazakhstanis could decide whether the country need NPP or not.

The referendum date is still not set. However, if people vote for it, the NPP will be built on Lake Balkhash. This location raises perplexity among Kazakhstan-based ecologists. According to them, the lake with its issues can face the fate of the Aral Sea even without the NPP, and its irreversible degradation would affect not only five regions located in the Balkhash basin, Karaganda, Zhambyl, Almaty regions, Zhetysu, Almaty city, but also all Central Asian states.

“Law on Balkhash is needed”

The issues of Lake Balkhash were first discussed almost at the same time when the idea of NPP construction on the lakeshore first emerged. The international environmental forum ‘Balkhash-2000’ was held in Almaty over 20 years ago. It was claimed back then that there would be lake degradation if water resources consumption rate remains the same in Kazakhstan, and water withdrawal by China increases. Satellite images made it possible to suggest that China would withdraw more water. They showed that China actively built canals and water reservoirs in the upper part of Ili, the river that feeds Balkhash.

In 2013, McKinsey consulting firm prepared a model of ‘green’ development of Kazakhstan by order of the government. The document contained, among others, the research of the Balkhash basin issues. 

“McKinsey calculated that Lake Balkhash would have water shortage of 1.9 billion cubic metres in 2030 given the existing situation, which is catastrophic for the lake,” said Bulat Yesekin, expert in ecopolitics, climate and water resources. “According to their statement, it would cause the irreversible degradation of the lake, in other words, it would be impossible to recover the lake ecosystem, one of the largest on the planet.”

According to Yesekin, if urgent measures are not taken today, Kazakhstan will face another environmental disaster right in the centre of the country with all the consequences that are known from the Aral Sea: water shortage, exhaustion of land, increase in noxious emissions, migration and conflicts.

Other researches show that the key obstacle to stopping a wasteful use of water is the fragmented management system.

“The lake and rivers is an integral living organism, not a ditch that can be dug out, reversed, or separated. Therefore, decisions made by officials and businesses must take laws of nature into account, instead of breaking them. But this approach needs other management framework, where all players would see the relation and dependence of their economic, social interests and even more – of their life – on the preservation of the natural basis,” Yesekin said.

He proposed to introduce other approaches instead of industrial ones focused on fast delivery of economic results of management systems. They should be based on joint, long-term and cross-sectoral – basin authority.

“We also need a special law on Lake Balkhash with legal confirmation of critical parameters and incentives needed to preserve the basin ecosystem,” the expert said.

“Ridiculous comparison by nuclear lobbyists”

“The ecosystem of Lake Balkhash plays a role of the main natural regulator of the balance across the Balkhash-Alakol basin, maintaining the circulation and exchange of water, nutrients, energy and other vital natural processes,” Bulat Yesekin said.

Climate change aggravates the situation with the lake. According to scientists, Central Asia gets warmer faster than other regions of the world. Therefore, the problems of Balkhash would aggravate every year and affect all countries of the region.

“Every new load would only compound the situation,” Yesekin said.

A NPP is the new load because it is a large water user and a great thermal pollution. Balkhash is not a very deep lake, its average depth is six metres, and the rise in water temperature may be critical for the lake.

“A nuclear power plant needs a large amount of water for heat exchange and cooling,” a scientist, who wished to remain anonymous because the subject of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan academic community is quite sensitive, said to “Withdrawal of a large amount of water from the lake will surely have a negative impact on the basin balance and the balance of the Ili-Balkhash basin in general.”

The screenshot of shows the Uzyn-Aral Strait on Lake Balkhash. Bulat Yesekin, expert in water resources, told us the following: “My acquaintance who flew from Astana to Almaty, said that this year it is obvious from the plane that the lake is being divided into two parts. Therefore, it should not be allowed to increase the load on the ecosystem, and the existing load should be decreased.”

The point is that the main water artery feeding Balkhash is the Ili River, whose delta flows into the western section of the lake. The Karatal, Asu, Lepsy Rivers fall into the eastern section. Nevertheless, the balance is generally maintained by the overflow of water from the western section to the eastern one via the Uzyn-Aral Strait.

“Construction of the nuclear power plant as a major water user, which will withdraw large amounts of water from the lake, will disturb its balance. It can lead to full degradation of the ecosystem of Balkhash and destruction of the flora and fauna habitat,” the anonymous speaker said.

“The comparison of the amounts of water withdrawal for the NPP (63 million cubic metres) with the rate of lake surface evaporation made up by nuclear lobbyists is incorrect, and actually ridiculous. Water evaporation is an important part of the natural process that maintains the balance and health of the basin, while the water withdrawal and pollution by the NPP disturb them,” Yesekin said.

The upstream dragon

The fate of Balkhash also depends on the actions of China. The River Ili, the main source of water in the lake, starts in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Every year the water withdrawal rate from Ili rises because the number of people living in the region increases.

“If the water flow from China was almost 14 cubic kilometres 10 years ago, now it is below 10 cubic kilometres. Moreover, we do not have any agreements on maintaining the cross-boundary flow with China,” Bulat Yesekin emphasised the problem and reminded that there was a precedent in the Balkhash history when the Chinese party had almost left the lake without water.

It happened due to the construction of the Kapshagai Reservoir. It was formed by blocking the flow of River Ili in Kapshagai Gorge, which allowed to build the HPP and provide electricity to Almaty. While the reservoir was filled, the water level of Balkhash declined: a small salt lake of Alakol almost vanished from 1972 to 2001, it is located 8 kilometres southward of Balkhash. The southern section of Balkhash lost up to 150 square kilometres of its surface.

China considered the reservoir construction an irrational use of water in Kazakhstan and reduced the rate of water discharge from Ili. However, Kazakhstan has managed to defend the lake’s interests. The main argument of Kazakhstan in talks with China was the fact that Balkhash was a natural site essential for the ecological balance.

“All countries, including China, have international obligations to preserve natural ecosystems. By its decision on NPP construction on Balkhash, Kazakhstan shows the world that the country stops considering the ecosystem of Balkhash as the natural site critical for the global sustainability.  In fact, we change the status of the lake by this decision, we make it an industrial cooling pond. For Kazakhstan, who has called on the global community for years on the Aral problems, it would be an inexcusable mistake,” Yesekin said.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 29th, 2023 at 5:59 am and is filed under Balkhash-Alakol Basin, China, Kazakhstan, Russia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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