Water dispute in Xinjiang puts China and Kazakhstan at odds

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China’s relationship with her neighbors hasn’t always been the most cordial, and as the country’s economy has taken off, it has sought to off-set negative feelings that those neighbors may be harboring. Through projects like the roads China is building in Laos and Vietnam, the opening of the Nathu La pass between China and India, and the proposed oil and gas pipeline from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China has hoped to alleviate fears and portray its “peaceful rise” as in line with the greater regions development.

While these platitudes have eased tensions, problems still arise from time to time, like the Songhe River debacle when a benzene slick extending 180 kilometers flowed north from the Songhua River in northern China into the Amur in far eastern Russia. Now there is another river dispute brewing, this time in western China.

Kazakhstan and China share about 20 transborder rivers, and Kazakhstan’s two main rivers, the Ili and the Irtysh, originate in China, the former in the Tianshan Mountains, the latter in the Altay Mountains. And as Sebastien Peyrouse explains in an excellent report for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief:

“China has recently extracted increasing amounts of water from both rivers upstream of the border. Such extractions have adversely affected Kazakhstan’s agricultural and industrial development and could even influence regions as far away as Siberia, since the Irtysh is the main tributary of the Ob River, which traverses the Omsk region.”

He divides his analysis into three main parts: Chinese objectives; economic and ecological risks in Kazakhstan; and the difficult negotiations between unequal partners. Some excerpts from the report:

Chinese objectives

With the rapid expansion of its economy, China is confronting a human development challenge that could potentially destabilize varying regions. China recently reaffirmed its objective of developing the “Far West” (xibu dakaifa) as one of its main economic and policy issues for the coming years. Indeed, Beijing has placed much hope in developing western China’s agriculture industry, particularly cotton, which occupies close to half of Xinjiang’s arable land. Cotton production has become a key factor in the Chinese economy, and Beijing considers the massive exportation of textiles to be of vital strategic interest. China also seeks to augment wheat production in the autonomous Kazakh region of Xinjiang. This production is forecast to double to five million tonnes per year. To this end, new fields will require additional water supplies, which can only come from the Ili and Irtysh Rivers.

Economic and Ecological Risks in Kazakhstan

The Ili feeds into the Kapchagai hydroelectric station, which supplies energy to the south of Kazakhstan, an area that experiences considerable energy shortfalls. A reduction in its effluence would result in an almost automatic increase in electricity prices, which by the country’s standards are already relatively high. As for the Irtysh, it is navigable from April to October and is one of the chief motors driving commercial exchange between this part of Kazakhstan and the Russian town Omsk. In addition, the country lacks water for agriculture: close to 15,000 square kilometers of arable land earmarked for cotton production has not been developed in Kazakhstan due to the lack of water. Rice production has also decreased, supposedly because of the drop in river levels. According to the Kazakh government, the Irtysh is the main source of water for around four million out of the country’s total population of 15 million people.

Difficult Negotiations between Unequal Partners

Both countries finally signed a framework agreement for the protection and utilization of transboundary rivers in Astana on September 14, 2001. Nevertheless, the document does not stipulate any rules for the specific treatment of the Ili or the Irtysh, going no further than calling for a “measured” utilization of common waters. Beijing has systematically refused to erect a joint authority for managing the Irtysh, accepting only the creation of a Sino-Kazakh consultative commission, which has now met only on a few occasions, first in October 2003 in Beijing, then in October 2004 in Almaty, and again in October 2005 in Shanghai.