Prague, 28 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The importance of the Irtysh River to Kazakhstan was highlighted at a conference in Prague this week organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
During a panel discussion, an official delegation from Kazakhstan submitted a paper which noted that the river is the principal source of water for some four million Kazakhs and that it "is a vital base for the industrial activities."
The discussion was timely. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan sent a delegation to China to discuss the future of the river. China proposes to build a canal on the upper part of the Irtysh (called "Ertis He" in China) to bring some of the river's water to developing oil fields in the area once called Eastern or Chinese Turkestan but now known as Xinjiang Province (or the Autonomous Uyghur Region).
The Irtysh begins in the Chinese Altay mountain range. Flowing west, it becomes the Kara-Irtysh River once it crosses into Kazakhstan. Exiting Lake Zaysan it becomes simply the Irtysh and travels to the northwest passing near Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk , and Pavlodar. Not long after, it crosses into Russia, going through the large city of Omsk on the way to join the Ob River. There are hydro-power stations near Ust-Kamenogorsk and at the northern end of Lake Zaysan. A canal built from the Irtysh to the city of Karaganda in 1960s also brings water to central areas of Kazakhstan making agriculture possible there.
Beijing's oil development plans for Xinjiang stem from the fact that fields in Chinas northeast are producing less oil and it is becoming more expensive to extract what there is. But the fields in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang are virtually untouched. The Turpan field, one of three large fields, is estimated to have 10,000 million tons of oil. But the fields are in the desert and inhabited areas are few and far between. To develop the fields people and equipment need to be brought in, and they will need water.
China actually proposes to tap two rivers which flow into Kazakhstan --the Ili and the Irtysh -- but the Ili is of much lesser consequence to Kazakhstan. China's plan is to build a 22-meter wide, 300-kilometer long canal to reroute water from the Irtysh to the Tarim Basin. The Russian newspaper "Ekonomicheskii Soyuz" wrote last month that according to the plan, "in the first stage 485 million cubic meters from an average volume of 9,000 million cubic meters in the river" will be diverted. That is the first stage but by the time the canal is fully operational, the year 2020 is the estimate, the canal will take 1,000 million cubic meters of water, or more than 10 percent of the total flow.
These developments come as Kazakhstan also plans to use more of the Irtyshs for development in its north. The countrys new capital, Astana, receives some of its water from the Ishim River. Additional water once came to Astana from the Nura River via Nura-Ishim canal but that canal is so polluted by mercury it had to be closed. A plan is being studied to take water from the Irtysh-Karaganda canal and bring it to Astana. The biggest cities near to Astana - Karaganda to the southeast and Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar to the east - get most or all their water from the Irtysh River. The large power plants and factories of this region are in the areas around those three cities. According to the government's plans, the population in this part of Kazakhstan should increase as the capital is built up. Kazakh and Chinese officials met in Beijing at the start of May to discuss issues surrounding use of the river, but few details of the talks were made public.
The Kazakh side was hopeful Russia would send a delegation. Kazakh officials mentioned publicly several times that the negotiations concerned Moscow also as Russian cities, such as Omsk, will also be affected. But Russia did not send anyone to the talks.
After discussions, the Chinese side said they understood Kazakhstan's position. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymjomart Tokayev expressed pleasure with the talks and downplayed any danger that the Chinese plans to Kazakh interests. However, his comments clearly indicated the Chinese side had not changed its development plans, and he called for more talks.
"The negotiations between Kazakhstan and China about cross border rivers and water issues have been very productive. During the first stage of negotiations the two sides made a deal on the water issue. China has a plan to divert 1,000 million cubic meters of water during the first 20 years of the next century. This is just ten percent of the river. It will not affect Kazakhstan's economy. But, any way, we should continue these negotiations. The next stage of the negotiations will take place here in Kazakhstan, either in Astana or Almaty."
The issue of the Irtysh Rivers future is being discussed as cooperation between the two countries on resource development is increasing. In the summer of 1997 China's National Petroleum Corporation signed a deal worth $9 billion with Kazakhstan to build a pipeline to fields in western Kazakhstan and bring oil to China. The pipeline will pass near to the proposed water canal before bringing oil to the Xinjiang city of Korla in the Tarim Basin. China could argue that the canal is therefore indispensable for the Kazakh oil deal.
There is another concern centering on Chinese oil development plans. Xinjiang Province is the traditional home of the Uyghurs, a Turkic-Muslim people related to the Kazakhs. Beijing has been experiencing difficulties with Uyghur nationalists for several years. The Uyghurs want more independence and less ethnic-Han Chinese moving west. By some estimates the two groups are presently almost equally represented in the population of Xinjiang.
As China allows more privatization of industry under its current economic plan, the Beijing government has warned from the start it will lead to greater unemployment. Unemployed Han workers from oil fields in the northeast may well make their way west to the opening fields of the Tarim Basin. This will put a further strain on the relations between Uyghur and Han in Xinjiang.