IWRM Action Hub
Case study

Kazakhstan: Responding to water challenges in Ili-Balkhash River Basin

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.  March 7, 2020.
Summary

Kazakhstan heavily relies on transboundary waters, however, the inflow from neighboring countries is decreasing due to their economic and social development. The southern and western regions, where over half the population lives, are most dependent on transboundary flows. The Ili-Balkhash River basin, shared between Kazakhstan and China, faces challenges due to reduced flow from the Ili River, a major contributor to Balkhash Lake. Agricultural expansion in China has further diminished water availability.  Progress in legal frameworks and IWRM practices, along with transboundary dialogues, offers hope for improving water depletion and quality in the Ili-Balkhash basin.

Background

Kazakhstan heavily relies on transboundary waters from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, accounting for 44% of surface water inflow (FAO Aquastat, 2022). However, the inflow from transboundary rivers is declining due to the rapid economic and social development of neighboring countries. The southern and western regions, home to over half of the country's population, are particularly dependent on these flows.

The Ili-Balkhash River basin, shared by Kazakhstan and China, spans a vast area in southeastern Kazakhstan and northwestern China. In Kazakhstan, it encompasses four regions within the Almaty region, Zhambyl, Karaganda, and East Kazakhstan Regions, as well as the northwestern part of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Map of the Ili-Balkhash river basin (de Boer et al, 2021)

The Ili River, a major contributor to Balkhash Lake's water, has become a significant cooperation concern. Its runoff from China has consistently decreased since the 1970s, while agricultural land along the Ili has expanded by 30% in the last two decades (Figure 2; Thorsberg, 2021).

Video file
Figure 2. Increase of irrigated land area in Ili-Balkhash River basin in China in years 1984-2023. Source: Google Earth, created by Aigerim Karibay, Intern, GWP Transboundary team.

Latest surface water testing in the Kazakh part of the Ili-Balkhash basin shows unsafe drinking water but usable for recreation, irrigation, and industry (Kazhydromet, 2023). Pollution sources include enterprises discharging wastewater into water bodies (Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan, 2018). The Balkhash basin is vulnerable to glacial runoff depletion due to melting glaciers and intensified evaporation from climate change (Huss & Hock, 2018). Kazakhstan and China must collaborate to establish a framework for sustainable basin management.

The 2001 Agreement on Cooperation in the Use and Protection of Transboundary Rivers governs the Ili-Balkhash River Basin's management between Kazakhstan and China. In 2011, the riparian states reached an additional agreement focusing on measures to improve water quality in shared waters.

Establishing basin councils in 2003 aimed to enhance stakeholder engagement, but challenges remain. The Balkhash-Alakol Basin Council, formed in 2005, serves as an advisory body. The involvement of the basin council, various NGOs, and the efforts of local authorities are helping to change the situation for the better, but these efforts are simply not sufficient. In addition, most of the previously recommended measures to improve the pollution control situation have not yet been implemented.

Actions taken

The latest analysis of water governance in Kazakhstan was conducted in 2012 as part of the regional project "Promoting IWRM and Facilitating Cross-border Dialogue in Central Asia" funded by UNDP, the EU, Finland, and OSCE ENVSEC programme. The objective was to assess progress on IWRM and identify areas for improvement in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The analysis revealed that the key issue in the region was inefficient water resources management, rather than water scarcity. Weaknesses in the governance structure were identified, and recommendations were developed for amending the Water Code of Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan: Analysis of legal challenges to the water governance).

In response to water challenges, Kazakhstan adopted the National Development Plan until 2025 in 2021, which prioritized updating the legal framework for water management. Consequently, Kazakhstan initiated the development of a new Water Code in 2021. The updated provisions of the Water Code are expected to address climate change impacts, irrational water use, and pollution, while also requiring the development of river basin management plans and a national plan for IWRM.

In 2021, the development of an action plan for the protection and restoration of the aquatic ecosystem of Balkhash Lake commenced. The plan, valid until 2025, aims to conserve the basin ecosystem, stabilize the hydrological regime of Lake Balkhash, enhance the efficiency and rational use of water resources, strengthen transboundary water cooperation, and build capacity (CARAWAN-Net, 2022).

Regarding transboundary cooperation, the construction of the Dostyk hydrosystem in the Khorgos River, a tributary of the Ili-Balkhash basin, serves as a notable example. Initial work began in 2002 when Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement on water use distribution and established a joint commission. Project design work commenced in 2005, with the final agreement on hydrosystem construction reached in November 2008 during a meeting of the Kazakh-Chinese joint commission on transboundary river use and protection. The joint Kazakh-Chinese hydrosystem "Dostyk" was constructed between 2011 and 2013, leading to the initiation of a Chinese-Kazakh joint water intake project on the Khorgos River in April 2011 (Figure 3).