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Kazakhstan: amid Central Asian dysfunction, Astana becomes an island of sound water-management policy

8 maggio 2009

A sign marks a crossing over the Syr Darya River (David Trilling for EurasiaNet)

The hamlet of Nauryz, found on a bleak slice of steppe in southwestern Kazakhstan, may not seem like the ideal spot to start a new life, but 79-year-old Anuar Sadykov has no complaints. He used to live nearby along the banks of the Syr Darya, and most years the river would burst its banks and wash through his home. “Everything was flooded all the time [in spring],” he said.

Nauryz, just outside the regional center of Kyzylorda, was built up with state funds to house flood victims like Sadykov and his extended family. The relocation program helped end an annual cycle in which thousands of citizens had to be evacuated due to spring flooding and then paid compensation to restore damaged property. “We were helped with finances and everything,” Sadykov told EurasiaNet as he tended vegetables on the small plot of land around his new house.

Sadykov’s experience helps underscore the Kazakhstani government’s dedication to improving its management of the country’s water resources. Among Central Asian states in general, disputes over the allocation of water have prevented the creation of a sound water-management framework. But the lack of regional consensus has not stopped Astana from doing what it can to increase the efficiency of internal water-related policies.

Better management of the existing flood-drought cycle poses the most daunting challenge. Overall, hundreds of thousands of people live along the flood plains of the Syr Darya, including the Kyzylorda and South Kazakhstan regions. Both areas escaped lightly this year due to a mild winter, but in 2008, one person died in floods and 13,000 were evacuated in South Kazakhstan Region, with 5,000 forced temporarily into tents. These floods, the most serious in recent years, caused at least $125 million in damage. In the Kyzylorda Region, last year’s floods were less severe, but still 400 families had to be resettled.

Each spring the local authorities boost flood defenses, set up evacuation points and spend months monitoring the movement of ice jams down the river, ready to dynamite them if they get blocked, Marat Baimbetov, regional civil defense department deputy head, told EurasiaNet. The town of Kyzylorda is perennially susceptible to flooding. But this year, the government made funds available to build concrete-reinforced levees that are expected to shield the town from flooding for at least 20 years.

Every year, as officials battle floods, they have one eye on another problem: come summer, will there be enough water to irrigate crops? One solution is to plant less thirsty crops. Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev said last July during a visit to the cotton-growing Maktaaral District in the south that if cotton was planted on 60,000-70,000 hectares — around a third less than in 2008 and half that of 2007 — and replaced with other crops, the district could cut water use in half.

But crop replacement cannot resolve the problem on its own, particularly when much of the irrigation drainage from the Syr Darya occurs in neighboring states. The river flows through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan before reaching Kazakhstan on its 2,200 kilometer course to the Aral Sea. By the time the waters reach Kazakhstan they are already polluted. A roundtable in Almaty on March 26 heard a report that the river water is so contaminated that it should not be used for drinking or irrigation, but those living along the banks of the Syr Darya have few other options.

Two strategic water management initiatives could ease Kazakhstan’s grand water dilemma. One is the second phase of a project to assist the recovery of the Northern Aral Sea (NAS). [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Reduced flows into the sea caused by wasteful irrigation downstream led the sea to shrink from the 1960s, but since 2005 a new dike and hydro facilities along the river have brought about a partial recovery of the NAS even as the southern part of the sea, which split into two in the 1980s, continues to shrink.

A feasibility study has been conducted for the second phase, which would involve building a new canal from the Syr Darya and a second dike to fill the currently dry Saryshyganak Bay (sometimes called Saryshaganak), northeast of where the sea waters currently end. The study is now being examined by government officials and the World Bank.

The second phase would entail improving structures along the Syr Darya, World Bank task team leader Joop Stoutjesdijk said, including by increasing the spillway capacity at the Shardara Dam in southern Kazakhstan and boosting flood embankments. “When all these options are put in place, the flow capacity of the Syr Darya would improve further, there would be less losses in desert sinks . . . and more water would be available for the delta lakes and the [Saryshyganak Bay] as part of the NAS,” he told EurasiaNet.

Another key project is the Koksaray reservoir, under construction in southern Kazakhstan near the existing Shardara reservoir. The second reservoir would store water released from power generation in upstream Kyrgyzstan in winter for irrigation in summer. The first phase of the reservoir plan — which is designed to collect water that currently goes to waste during the flood season — is due to be completed by the end of 2009.

The outcry in the Uzbek press over the Koksaray project when it was unveiled in 2008 highlights the problem of cross-border cooperation when it comes to water use. Upstream states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are keen to further harness the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to generate power, while downstream states are concerned about the impact on water flow. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been particularly vocal in their opposition to ambitious Kyrgyz and Tajik hydroelectric projects. Those disagreements were on full display during the Aral Sea summit, held in Almaty in late April. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kazakhstan, which also stands to be affected by upstream projects, has so far adopted a more diplomatic approach. It has been pushing to set up a Central Asian water and energy consortium to manage disputed resources, but — with the interests of neighbors at odds — the idea has yet to gain much traction.

Editor’s Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

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