Industrial plants and other development projects in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang are hampering the flow of two key rivers into neighboring Kazakhstan and dumping hazardous chemicals into them as the two countries appear to be far from reaching agreement on the possibility of jointly managing the rivers, experts say.
One river, the Irtysh, rises in the Altay mountains in Xinjiang and passes through Kazakhstan, where it provides drinking water for the Kazakh capital Astana, and then flows into Russia, where it merges with other rivers to form the Ob.
The second, the Ili, flows from Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and empties into Lake Balkhash, providing water for farmland along the way.
As China proceeds with its ambitious plans to develop its far northwest, though, it is drawing more and more heavily from these rivers not only for drinking water and irrigation, but for industrial use.
This has led to “greater quantities of toxic materials being poured into the Irtysh and Ili rivers,” said Sharipjan Nadirov, a professor of geography and economy at Kazakhstan National University.
“The Kazakh and Russian people are therefore worried not only about diminished water flows, but also about pollution,” Nadirov said.
Kazakhstan and Russia have been concerned about “the water issue” for more than a decade now, said Haiyun Ma, a scholar of China-Central Asia relations at Maryland’s Frostburg State Univerity.
“But they still are unable to raise their voice against China’s excessive use [of river water] because of their deepening economic dependence on China, which imports large quantities of oil and gas from them.”
And though all three countries belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping including other Central Asian states, the SCO focuses mainly on security issues, “leaving environmental and water issues untouched,” Ma said.
Meanwhile, “China’s new program of developing its Great Northwest is bringing more and more Han Chinese from eastern China to the remote northern frontier of Xinjiang, and especially to the Ili region,” Ma said.
Xinjiang is home to China's mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur ethnic group and has been the scene of recurring violence between Uyghurs and the country's majority Han Chinese, who have been settling in the region in large numbers.
Negotiations between China and Kazakhstan over shared use of the rivers are proceeding slowly, experts say.
China has said that it wants to divide access to the water of its transborder rivers with Kazakhstan “fairly, depending on the number of people living along the rivers’ banks,” said Kazakh Vice Minister of Agriculture Marat Tolibayev, quoted in a June 18 report by the online Tengri News.
“[However], if we divide the water depending on the number of people living in China and Kazakhstan, we will never reach a win-win solution,” said Tolibayev, who announced in December that the two countries hope to settle the issue of transborder rivers by 2015.
For now, Kazakhstan seems willing to put aside its concerns over water in order to cooperate with China more on trade, economic, energy, and political issues, said Sean Roberts, a U.S. scholar of the region.
But as China’s economic interests increase in Kazakhstan, “it will be more difficult for Kazakhstan to challenge China’s water policies with regard to these rivers,” said Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University.
“Kazakhstan has yet to experience substantial problems with China’s control over the Ili and Irtysh rivers,” Roberts said.
“[These] problems will likely emerge as China continues to develop its Xinjiang Autonomous Region.”
Reported and translated by Nabijan Tursun for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.