Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Water Resources is engaging in negotiations with China over water usage of the region’s increasingly stressed rivers. Astana has established a 20-member working group to haggle with Chinese officials over a water-distribution framework covering approximately 20 cross-border rivers, including the Irtysh and Ili.
According to a ministry statement, the two states have already agreed on a number of points as of late December. A ministry representative, Nurzhan Nurzhigitov, indicated that a water-sharing mechanism covering the Khorgos River could serve as a model for similar arrangements on other waterways.
“Along the [Khorgos] river that separates the two states, a common hydraulic facility was built jointly with China,” Nurzhigitov was quoted . “Its operation is 100 percent automated, and its locks are designed in such a way that water flows equally on both sides of the border. When one party wants to change the amount of water coming through the sluice, the other party automatically receives the same amount of water.” Related: Surging Tanker Rates Make U.S Oil Too Expensive for Asia
Despite the apparent negotiating progress, getting a satisfactory water-management deal done with China will not be easy. Kazakhstan in recent years has complained about excessive Chinese water consumption. Last summer, for example, the Irtysh River experienced some of its lowest water levels in generations. Though drought was acknowledged as a contributing factor, Kazakh experts blamed China for exacerbating the problem by diverting excessive amounts of water from the Irtysh basin. The low water levels on the Irtysh caused economic disruption not only for Kazakhstan but also Russia.
In late 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev expressed concern that intensive water diversion by China of the Ili River was a factor in the shrinking of Lake Balkhash. In a 2018 academic study, the authors contended that Kazakh officials have limited leverage when negotiating with Beijing on water-related issues. The study notes that Astana has faced “difficult trade-offs” as Kazakh officials attempt “to balance access to adequate water with all the other aspects of its national interest that are connected to its relationships with China.”
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