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In Kazakhstan, 'The Floods Are Over But The Problems Have Just Begun'

Horses in the Atyrau region after the floods had receded on April 10
Horses in the Atyrau region after the floods had receded on April 10

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The dozens of residents who held a weeklong protest outside a government building in the flood-hit town of Qulsary have packed up their tents and their banners -- for the moment.

But they are not the only ones crying out for faster and larger government compensation after historic flooding in Kazakhstan.

Beyond the immediate financial fallout in terms of handouts for the tens of thousands who lost homes, livestock, and other possessions in the floods, there is the longer-term impact on th environment and agriculture, with swathes of crop-growing land damaged by the deluge.

"The floods are over but the problems have just begun," summed up Almasbek Sadyrbaev, chairman of Shanyrak, a farming association with members across the country.

Kazakhstan's cagey authorities are likely aware of that, but will they find answers?

Disagreement On The Costs

Seasonal floods that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called the worst experienced by the country for some 80 years began devastating the country in the second half of March, peaking in the first half or April and continuing into May.

The deluge was caused by a sudden spell of warm weather on the back of cold temperatures and high snowfall, which allowed for a dangerous build-up of ice on Kazakhstan's vast steppes.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)
President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)

Well over 100,000 people were evacuated during the flooding that began in the second half of March and peaked in mid-April, causing several fatalities.

The worst-hit regions were northern and western Kazakhstan.

Gauez Nurmukhambetov, governor of North Kazakhstan Province, estimated earlier this month that his region alone required 73 billion tenges ($165 million) to compensate damages.

That was more than the amount allocated annually for the development of the province's administrative center, Petropavl, where more than 200,000 people live, he added.

Local authorities in Aqtobe, one of the first provinces hit by the floods and one of the first where they receded, reckoned on 51 billion tenges ($115 million) in late April.

Given that they are just two of seven provinces affected, Deputy Prime Minister Kanat Bozumbaev's initial projection of 400 billion tenges ($923 million) in total damages -- he stressed at the time that the figure was only preliminary -- is looking increasingly forlorn.

Of course, not everyone has been happy about the size of compensation presently on offer.

Qulsary, a town in the western province of Atyrau, suffered disproportionately, with around 2,000 permanent homes damaged and a further 1,000 deemed beyond repair.

Hundreds of residents were seeking upfront payments of 400,000 tenges ($903) per square meter in compensation, while officials have cited calculations of between 200,000 and 240,000 tenges ($450-$563).

Dozens of demonstrators had camped out on the town square, but they ended their protest on May 22, telling RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that they feared "provocations" after citizens unaffected by the flood joined them and issued broader political demands.

But several residents who have been homeless for more than a month told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that they remain unsatisfied with the lower figure, with some saying that it doesn't take into account labor costs. They have not ruled out resuming their protest.

Containing The Anger

On the same day as Qulsary ended its protest, Kazakh media reported that the Halyk charitable fund controlled by Timur Kulibaev -- Kazakhstan's top banker and the son-in-law of ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- had begun paying residents of the town compensation.

Floodwaters in the West Kazakhstan region on April 1
Floodwaters in the West Kazakhstan region on April 1

The Ata Meken business website noted that Halyk had contributed 31.4 billion tenges (more than $70 million) to fighting the floods, with most of the money going to victims in Atyrau.

Protests about compensation were also held this month outside the town hall in Oral, the administrative center of West Kazakhstan Province, whose city outskirts were badly flooded.

One Oral resident said last week that he was paid a visit by police at the evacuation point where he is living with his family after their home went underwater.

He told RFE/RL that they warned him that he faced 15 days imprisonment if he protested again, to which he replied: "I have nothing to lose. I am homeless anyway."

There have been few reports of arrests connected with the protests despite the fact that gatherings that take place without government approval are illegal under Kazakh law.

But at least 29 citizens had faced administrative sanctions for spreading "false information" connected to the flooding, according to Prime Minister Olzhas Bektenov.

Six of those citizens were sentenced to short detentions, Bektenov said on May 21.

Additionally, Oral journalist Raul Uporov was charged and fined for hooliganism after he recorded a video message defying local authorities' prohibition on media coverage in parts of the flood zone.

Uporov and his colleague Lukpan Akhmedyarov made several video reports on the floods in Oral on their YouTube channel Prosto Jurnalistika.

Spoiled Land?

Aside from publicly calling on oligarchs like Kulibaev to pick up part of the compensation tab, Toqaev has moved quickly to cancel or cut funding for flashy budget-funded events whose costs are scrutinized by the population.

One of these was the Astana International Forum, which the capital was due to host in June.

A drowned horse from the spring floods outside of the village of Yekpetal
A drowned horse from the spring floods outside of the village of Yekpetal

Climate change was one of a number of topics addressed at the last edition of the forum, which is typically viewed as an attempt to project the country's international image and attract investment, similar to Russia's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

In his keynote address last year, Toqaev raised concern that "droughts and floods in Central Asia will [reduce] GDP by 1.3 percent per year and reduce agricultural yields by 30 percent, resulting in an estimated 5 million internal climate migrants by 2050."

While Toqaev was talking in general terms, experts are already counting the cost of 2024's floods to agriculture, with Sadyrbaev warning that the sector had been "set back several years."

In late April, the Agriculture Ministry said that it had paid out 278 million tenges ($680,000) in compensation for livestock, with calculations continuing.

But Sadyrbaev said multiple farmers have reported problems in proving their right to compensation to his organization.

The government's initial preference that farmers retain the corpses of their livestock as proof was rendered meaningless amid evidence that some livestock had been washed downstream as far as the Caspian Sea, he said.

Shanyrak and other farming associations are now hopeful the government will work out fair compensation according to the farmbooks kept by local administrations, where "all animals are more or less recorded."

What of the damage to land? That is a big unknown for the moment.

Laura Malikova, chairman of the board of the Association of Practicing Environmentalists, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that farmers should carry out water and soil tests for harmful substances -- especially in areas where cattle burial grounds were washed away -- before restarting any agricultural work.

Longer term, the government should develop a national adaptation plan for climate change in order to minimize the risk from future disasters, something that the ecologist says does not exist yet.

Kiril Pavlov, an analyst and consultant focused on agriculture, raises similar fears.

"Our farmers often do not observe crop rotation, planting the same crop in the same place for 10–15 years," Pavlov said, highlighting wheat production as typical of this habit.

"As a result, certain pathogens appear in the soil that reduce productivity. When the floods swept through the fields, the water collected not only pathogens like these but also pesticides and insecticides that were used to treat the soil," Pavlov said.

Kazakhstan's spring sowing campaign began in mid-May.

A readout from a May 14 government meeting stated that 580 billion tenge will be allocated for sowing work, mostly in the form of soft loans and subsidies for farmers.

The readout did not mention the flooding but said that the figure was "three times greater than in previous years."

At the same time, the fields in some parts of the country appear to be either waterlogged or too soaked to begin work, Pavlov noted.

"Moreover, in northern [Kazakhstan] there are predictions of a cool summer," the analyst noted.

"Late sowing and a summer with less sun. When you combine these factors, they raise big questions about [this year's] harvest."

  • 16x9 Image

    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. 

  • 16x9 Image

    Petr Trotsenko

    Petr Trotsenko is a journalist in RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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    Ainur Saparova

    Ainur Saparova is a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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