GEOPOLITICS of China Threatens with Ecologic Disaster

By Arthur Dunn

The processes of the establishment of the Common Economic Space in Eurasia dictates the member-states the need of joint efforts to protect territorial and economic interests of each other. The case is about protection of the states interests in terms of joint use of water resources. Today Russia and Kazakhstan have to face the prospect of deficit of water, which is supplied from transboundary with China rivers.


Kazakhstan, taking the ninth position in the world in territory size, today has an acute deficit of water resources. Almost a half of water resources of the country are formed by the rivers flowing from neighbor states – Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. 


If Kazakhstan has managed to has agreed with first three states on the rules of transboundary river’s use, then the talks with China hasn’t yet resulted in anything. Experts think that uncomplying line of Beijing on this issue threatens with ecologic disaster not only for the territory of Kazakhstan, but also for Russian Siberia.


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Despite that the problem of the watershed of transboundary rivers (heading from China and flowing along the territories of Kazakhstan and Russia), the biggest of which are Ili and Irtysh concerns three countries at once, Beijing prefers to hold talks with Moscow and Astana individually. By this, China suggests to apply technical approach at interdepartmental level towards the use and protection of the transboundary river. It’s also worth to note that China is not a member of the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997) and Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (1992).


Kazakhstani-Chinese talks on the water issue started yet in the end of 90-s of XX century. Till now positive effect for Kazakhstan hasn’t yet been achieved. According to international-legal documents, the owners of the river runoff within the territory of the given state, is this exactly state. But it is authorized to use these waters rationally, which means without damage to ecology and economic-agricultural activity within areas and territories down the stream. However, during the talks with Kazakhstan China has defended its line (it is documented in the intergovernmental treaty of the two states) on that Kazakhstan can not counteract the plans of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to expand water intake from the rivers Ili and Irtysh as it is a “rational approach of China”.


And China constantly increases water intake. The reason is the strategy of Beijing on a large-scale reclamation of Western China, including turning of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into a regional and trade center of Central Asia with further dissemination of influence also to Middle East. Western PRC regions have the task to develop oil and other industries, hydro-energy of irrigated agriculture, cattle breeding for the demands of growing and moved people there (as known, Beijing has the plans to inhabit Xinjiang with ethnic Chinese people). Considering growing demands of industry and agriculture and the fact that Xinjiang is the less provided with water resources region of Chine, it is only possible to solve the problem of water supply at the cost of transboundary rivers of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Kazakhstan (Xinjiang possesses water resources of 26.3 cubic km a year, which allows to supply water for only 18 million people. But already now the population of the region comprises about 20 mln people with the potential of further growth). By this China increasing water intake from the listed rivers, doesn’t follow the principles and norms of the international law.


According to the PRC plans, Beijing intends to use hydro-resources of more than 30 rivers, flowing from China into the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK), including construction of multiple hydro-technical units along transboundary with Kazakhstan rivers. Thus, it is planned to expand significantly cultivated areas for crops and cotton in the Autonomy by the use of the resources of the upper (“Black”) Irtysh. It is planned to increase gradually water intake from this river up to 4 cubic km annually. The main subject of management is the river Black Irtysh.


In the following eight years the PRC plans to invest more than 2 billion UDS into the construction of water reservoirs in Xinjiang. Only in near future 9 reservoirs shall be commissioned of small and medium capacity. They shall allow transition to sedentary life and to release lands for farmlands. In several years to come 8 similar units shall be constructed within the territory of Xinjiang.


By this already today water intake from Irtysh exceeds 15% of the off-flow. And by the moment of finalization of the Strategy the intake shall comprise not less than one third of water resources of Irtysh. The construction of big hydro power plants has stared along the Irtysh inflow. Except for that a pipeline is being piped to derivate a part of water to Zimunaisk county.


A similar work is being done also along the inflows and the very streambed of the river.  Experts suggest that in course of the following decades a general intake of China of water from Ili shall comprise not less than a half from its total water run-off.


In March 2011 a decision was made to accelerate development of reforms in the sphere of water economy which was the first document in the history of China on complex state policy in the given sphere. Till 2022 annually the state budget shall invest 62 billion USD into water-economic and irrigational objects. Naturally, that on the background of such global development plans Beijing is not in a hurry to limit its economy in the use of hydro-resources, and moreover cedes its partners in this issue. Experts already talk about that reduction of water resources in the basins of the rivers Irtysh and Ili shall result into a global ecologic disaster. It is expected that water, climate and general natural balance shall be disturbed in the regions of the lakes Balkash and Zaisan in Kazakhstan and down the stream of the rivers Irtysh and Ili; the damage to fish industry, reduction of agricultural productivity and degradation of pastures; acute reduction of biologic value of water up to its unsuitability for domestic consumption due to increase of concentration of harmful substances in it.


Thus, by preservation of rates of the accomplishment of Chinese strategy in Xinjiang already by 2020 actual stop of navigation in the RK at the river Ishim and degradation of canals, reservoirs (Bukhtarmin and Shulbin) within the territory of Kazakhstan, supplied from Irtysh river, is expected. Ecologists also talk about expected worsening of the surface waters quality and contamination of underground waters. If a massive intake of waters from Irtysh starts in China, than the streambed of Irtysh along the whole territory of Kazakhstan and to the Russian city of Omsk can become a chain of swamps and slack waters.


And also it shall draw drying out of first of all of Zaisan lake (Kazakhstan), fed by the waters of this river. Shallowing of the Russian river Ob is in process, the biggest inflow of which is Irtysh. As a result of increased intake by China, the number of the RF regions where Irtysh is flowing, have already deprived of more than 2 billion cubic meters annually. For example, in the Omsk region the process of desertification has started. Many specimen of flora and fauna vanish. Also Kurgan and Tyumen regions suffer. Massive intake of waters from the Ili river by China shall lead to shallowing also of the Balkhash river. This shall induce dissemination of salt from its bottom along the whole territory of the region, including Tien Shan glaciers, located in China, which afterwards shall melt. As a consequence, less water shall flow into mountain rivers, and China which situates in the upper run-off of the rivers Ili and Irtysh, shall find itself in a role of deficit water manager.


Accelerated industrial development of North-West China, can sufficiently increase contamination of the transboundary rivers. Already today the maximum permissible concentration of the most hazardous substances in Irtysh river and its inflows exceed the norm in 6-30 times, for oil products and copper compounds – in 50 and more times. Often they register excess of norms in nitrogen and phenol in 30-90 times in Ob and its inflows due accidents and failures in filtering systems operation,


Considering the terms of the accomplishment of the Strategy by Beijing for a large-scale reclamation and due to that lingering by China of conclusion of a complex Kazakhstani-Chinese treaty on water division within transboundary rivers can be expected the conclusion of such treaty not earlier than 2020. However, common plans on region’s development allow suggesting that Beijing shall be able to sign the treaty even later – by 2030-2040. By this time all hydro-technical and irrigational objects shall be already constructed. Then the states, down the stream of transboundary rivers shall simple face the fact of interstate water use. 


Obviously, Russia as well as Kazakhstan becomes hostages of such PRC policy. Sleepy negotiation process on the issue, which has lasted already for more than ten years, has given yet no serious results. First of all, Tianxia refuses to hold talks in a multilateral format. It refuses to discuss it also in the frames of the SCO. Secondly those agreements that have already been reached do not change anything principally.