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After Crop Failures, Kazakhstan's Drought Looms Large Over Livestock Farmers

A field of withered maize plants near Buryl village, Baizak district, Zhambyl Province, during the severe drought on August 28.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- On the back of an oven of a summer that has battered farming in Kazakhstan, Gaziz Satylganov has been running the numbers.

They don't look good.

In fact, Satylganov, who raises livestock in Kazakhstan's southern Almaty Province, has reached the sad conclusion that he will have to slaughter part of his herd to offset the rising cost of scarce animal feed ahead of a winter's uncertainty.

A long streak of hot, rainless weather has been particularly unkind to southern Kazakhstan.

Zhambyl, the province next door to Almaty Province, suffered major crop failures after the flow of irrigation water from a reservoir across the border in Kyrgyzstan dried up.

With the heat also taking its toll on pasture lands and plots allocated for animal fodder, animal husbandry is now under threat.

"To survive the winter, you need at least 300 rolls of hay and 20 tons of fodder," said Satylganov in regard to his livelihood of 170 horses and some 400 sheep.

"We are preparing the feed. But there is no hay [after the] drought. For the last two or three years there has not been enough water," he told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service by phone.

A cow tries to eat dried leaves off a tree in Yernazar village, Zhambul, on August 27.
A cow tries to eat dried leaves off a tree in Yernazar village, Zhambul, on August 27.

The hay that has managed to survive a scorched-earth summer is spiking in price in Satylganov's part of the country.

He said he was able to secure 50 rolls for 15,000 tenge ($32) each, with each roll weighing around a quarter of a ton.

That tallies with figures reported by the Kazakhstan Farmers Association (KFK), which said the cost of one ton of hay this year in Almaty Province has more than doubled to reach 60,000 tenge, with similar increases in the central Karaganda Province and the northern province of Pavlodar.

In East Kazakhstan Province, the increase is proportionally smaller, but still prohibitively expensive for some farmers, with the cost of a ton of hay rising from 50,000 to 75,000 tenge, the lobby group said.

Zhanibek Aralbaev, a farmer in the western province of Atyrau, says he faces problems similar to those of his colleagues in the south.

He estimated in an interview with RFE/RL that he only has 70 percent of the food he needs for his 110 cows, 15 bulls, and 60 calves.

And what if the winter is a harsh one?

With no answer to that question as yet, Aralbaev has acted as many of his peers have, by putting a part of his cattle -- the bulls and all of the younger animals -- up for sale.

Die-Off Deja Vu?

This trend is a major source of concern for KFK, which said the animal-rearing industry embedded in Kazakh culture is hanging in the balance.

Yermek Abuov, the association's deputy chairman, told RFE/RL that a worst-case scenario is a repeat of the die-offs seen in several southern provinces and the western province of Mangystau in 2021, when images of horse carcasses strewn across the arid steppe made international news.

Animal carcasses lie on the ground outside the village of Tushchykudyk amid a severe drought in the Mangystau region in July 2021.
Animal carcasses lie on the ground outside the village of Tushchykudyk amid a severe drought in the Mangystau region in July 2021.

Moreover, if strategic breeding stocks are not preserved, Abuov argued, the effects might be felt for the next few years, with smaller-time farmers cutting their losses and turning their back on the profession.

"Farmers understand that they cannot survive the winter without feed, so they slaughter their livestock while it is still fattened," Abuov told RFE/RL, who said cattle and sheep populations were already falling in the first half of the year.

In these situations, farmers rarely get a good price for their animals.

But in the medium-term, falling animal stocks can lead to a spike in the cost of meat and milk, Abuov said.

And that is a big worry for the Kazakh government.

Last year saw food inflation peak at more than 20 percent, as fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine caused imports to soar while exposing inefficiencies in Kazakhstan's domestic supply chains.

In June and July of this year, it was still running high at 13.5 percent year-on-year, according to the national statistics agency.

The Agriculture Ministry has reacted by setting up an emergency task force to resolve the feed shortfall.

In a written response to questions from RFE/RL, the ministry said it had calculated that subsidies for livestock farmers this year would have to be almost doubled from their current levels of 11.7 billion tenge (around $25 million).

The government was also studying debt prolongation for farmers struggling to pay off loans in drought-affected areas, the ministry said.

'No Less Important Than Oil, Gas, Or Metals'

In his annual national address at the beginning of this month, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said that water is “no less important than oil, gas, or metals.”

For Kazakh farmers it is far more important than those other commodities, which have historically made up the bulk of exports while failing to put much money in the pockets of ordinary citizens.

But like Kazakhstan's hydrocarbon wealth, water is used inefficiently.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said that water is "no less important than oil, gas, or metals."
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said that water is "no less important than oil, gas, or metals."

In the September 1 address, Toqaev said water tariffs would be increased to de-incentivize waste.

"In a word, we need to save water in every possible way," Toqaev warned.

Kazakhstan's water stresses are exacerbated by the fact that nearly half of the water available for agriculture comes from rivers that originate in neighboring countries.

The massive crop failures in Zhambyl earlier this summer showed how vulnerable farming is in drought years after Kyrgyzstan ceased supplies of irrigation water to the province, seemingly to prevent the Kirov water reservoir from drying up completely.

That crisis was viewed as the reason for a sudden chokehold on cargo entering Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan in late August, although Kazakh officials rejected the notion that the weeklong chaos at the border was a form of retaliation.

It certainly appeared to pile pressure on Kazakhstan's young ecology minister, Zulfiya Suleimenova, who was eventually dismissed after Toqaev reshuffled the government on September 4.

Erbol Karashukeev, the agriculture minister during this crisis, was replaced by Aidarbek Saparov in the same reshuffle yet reemerged -- rather curiously -- as Zhambyl's new governor.

The shortcomings of both the Ecology Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry in water management, meanwhile, were reflected in the establishment of a new Water Resources and Irrigation Ministry that was formed on the same day as Toqaev's address.

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    Dilara Isa

    Dilara Isa is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.