- - Sunday, October 9, 2011

KUIGAN, Kazakstan — In eastern Kazakhstan, a lake is slowly dying.

But in this village of 1,800 people on the southwestern tip of Lake Balkhash, fishermen don’t believe the lake is shrinking.

“We call it the ‘ocean’ because if you’re out on the water in a storm, you realize it’s just as dangerous,” says Oleg Schumacher, one of the village’s 200 fishermen. “Look how much water the Ili River [which feeds to the lake] has this year.”

Lake Balkhash stretches 360 miles across the Kazakh Steppe, curving like a saber blade, and is the largest in Central Asia.

That distinction used to belong to the Aral Sea before it shrunk to less than one-fifth of its original size over the past 50 years. A new desert has formed on its parched lake bed - and Lake Balkhash faces the same fate.

The Aral Sea’s tributaries - mainly the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers - were diverted to Soviet irrigation projects during the 1960s and have become mere trickles.

Lake Balkhash’s tributaries also are endangered because of agricultural mismanagement and a lack of consensus among the countries that border the lake. The 6,300-square-mile lake is very shallow and has wide expanses that are less than 30 feet deep.

“For a lake of this size, that is extremely little,” says German hydrologist Martin Lindenlaub, who works at the Regional Environmental Center for Central Asia in Almaty. “This makes the lake particularly sensitive to reductions in inflow because owing to the dry climate, evaporation levels are particularly high here.

“And the shallower the lake, the more water evaporates. It’s a dangerous cycle.”

Between 1972 and 2001, Lake Balkhash shrank by about 22 square miles. Between 1988 and 1998, scientists at the Kazakh Institute of Geology and Geography in Almaty measured a drop of almost 7 feet in water level.

Over the past decade, the lake’s water levels have increased slightly, and no one is quite sure why.

Yet the threat to the lake is real and emanates from China, say scientists. Eighty percent of the water that feeds Lake Balkhash comes from the Ili River, which flows from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

“China is beginning to economically develop its western regions,” says Zhakybay Dostay, a hydrologist at the Kazakh Institute of Geology and Geography.

Dozens of dams are being built on Xinjiang’s 12 rivers, including the Ili. “Once they are completed, only a third of the water that currently flows from China will reach Kazakhstan,” Mr. Dostay says.

Analysts say that spells the end for Lake Balkhash because the water level would decline again, this time permanently. It would threaten the extensive wetlands surrounding the lake, a refuge for many fish and bird species.

And the nearly 3 million people settled around the lake, most of whom make a living from fishing and agriculture, would see their livelihoods destroyed.

So far, Kazakhstan and China have failed to reach an agreement regarding the Ili River.

A Kazakh-Chinese commission on the use of rivers that traverse both countries was set up in 2001, but a bilateral agreement sets no firm provisions for water use.

Kazakh politicians, however, studiously avoid criticizing China because of the importance of their neighbor as a trading partner.

And Kazakhs strain the lake’s resources by growing rice, as does the village of Bakh-Bakhty, about 90 miles east of Kuigan.

“Rice needs a lot of water,” says Akylbek Botbayev, foreman of a rice collective of about 2,500 acres.

The water for the rice fields and for another 5,000 acres of irrigated land is diverted from the Ili River, which flows a few miles away. Scientists say that more than 50 percent of the water simply drains unused into the soil.

Mr. Botbayev doesn’t worry about water levels decreasing in the near future. “There’s enough water there,” he says.

But scientists say something needs to be done, and soon, before the situation becomes irreversible.

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