Zhanar Sagimbayeva is economic transition adviser in the UNDP's office in Almaty. "Globally, humankind can face a water crisis. And it has even more relevance for Kazakhstan because we have water in very scarce amounts. The country holds last place in the Commonwealth of Independent States in terms of per capita water supply," Sagimbayeva says.
Sagimbayeva's comments follow the release in Almaty of the UNDP's report, titled "Water as a Key Factor of Human Development in Kazakhstan." According to the report, the distribution of surface and groundwater in Kazakhstan is quite uneven. For example, central Kazakhstan has access to only 3 percent of the country's water.
In the meantime, the water that is available is not always fit for human consumption. "About 50 percent of the population uses drinking water which doesn't meet [international] standards of salinity and hardness," Sagimbayeva says. "And the population [often] use water which doesn't meet bacteriological standards. This is related to bad conditions of our water infrastructure. It has a direct effect on the health of the population."
The report says poor sanitary conditions in Kazakhstan's water supply system, and the use of inferior quality water from natural reservoirs, have the potential to give rise to epidemics. The document lists large cities such as Almaty, Taraz, and Pavlodar as the most vulnerable to the progressive chemical and microbial contamination of surface and underground waters.
Amirkhan Kenshimov is vice chairman of the Committee on Water Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture. He acknowledges the problems but says drinking water in urban areas in Kazakhstan meets international standards. "Of course, everything is bad," he says. "And in the latest period, the quality of water resources, including rivers and lakes, has worsened. But I can say that the quality of drinking water in urban areas corresponds to necessary standards."
What do residents of Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city, think about the water they are drinking? One boy said, "I think the water is clean." Somewhat less certain, a girl told RFE/RL: "We drink ordinary water, and we hope it's clean." One man was unequivocal. "I don't know what kind of water it is, but I know it's not clean. It comes from the underground. We get too many diseases because of that water." Another said, "Where I live the water is clean. However, I know there are places in Kazakhstan where the water is not clean enough. But as far as I know our government does everything to make it clean."
The UNDP's Sagimbayeva notes that water has been viewed as an unlimited resource by the country's 15 million people. But she says the system inherited from the Soviet Union does not provide for rational and effective water management. She is calling for the implementation of a national strategy of water resource management in Kazakhstan that embraces the issues of education, economic development, health protection, poverty, and environmental protection. "The main recommendation is to change people's attitude toward water because we got used to [treating] it as an unlimited resource. People use water without even thinking [about] how much water they waste. For example, since the beginning of the 1990s, our agriculture produces less and less but uses the same amount of water," Sagimbayeva said.
Other challenges include reducing water pollution and revising the system of fines for those who do pollute. Kenshimov of the Agriculture Ministry says the issues are being tackled: "A lot of work is being done within the special program on [ensuring the] purity of supplied drinking water. For example, the government allocated [$43 million] this year for that program. And we are planning to increase that sum."
But according to the UNDP, a successful resolution of Kazakhstan's water problems will also depend on agreements with neighboring states, given that almost half of the available water in Kazakhstan first passes through its neighbors. The report warns that Central Asia's second-largest lake, Lake Balkhash, is now in danger of drying out if Kazakhstan does not adopt better water-management practices and wins China's cooperation.
Mels Eleusizov, head of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Tabigat (Nature), agrees. "The Ili River provides 80 percent of the water flowing into Lake Balkhash. And as far as I know, the Ili starts in China. The Chinese government is settling many people from central China to the country's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They need new industrial facilities and new agriculture complexes, which consume a lot of water. But if -- [let's say] -- 15 percent of the Ili is prevented from reaching us, we will face an [ecological disaster on the scale of the drying out of the] Aral Sea. It is a real problem," Eleusizov said.
The Kazakh newspaper "Megapolis" recently reported that, according to the latest data, the lake has shrunk by more than 2,000 square kilometers. The gradual depletion of the Aral Sea due to extensive irrigation has had an adverse effect on human health in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, including instances of malnutrition and disease.
(Merkhat Sharipzhanov, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)