The Problem Of Transboundary Rivers Being A Factor Of Strategic Security For Countries

The Problem Of Transboundary Rivers Being A Factor Of Strategic Security For Countries

By Arthur Dunn

The international security problems are becoming more relevant due to inevitable exacerbation of issue of the global shortage of fresh water. People are concerned about the possibility of serious international conflicts over water scarcity. It is impossible to completely deny such a possibility. Disputes over water of cross-border rivers are not uncommon, which creates a ground for local collisions.

According to the United Nations increased consumption of fresh water caused by population growth and increased population mobility, as well as new requirements and increased energy demands, coupled with tangible consequences of climate change will lead to growing water shortages. Every three years the World Water Assessment Program publishes the official report, which represents the most comprehensive assessment of the global status of freshwater resources.

Many countries have already reached their water use limits the last report for 2009 says. The situation is exacerbated by climate change issue. The signs of competition for water between countries, urban and rural areas as well as different industries have already shown up. All this is likely to turn the problem of water scarcity into a political issue in the near future.

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For instance, the consumerist approach and irrational use of cross-border rivers with Kazakhstan and Russia by Chinese authorities and specialist agencies are commonly known. To date the expansion of economic activity in China has greatly reduced the inflow of water to the above-mentioned states. And if now the water problems are of particularly acuity only for the Central Asian state, which having armed itself with patience, is seeking to resolve the issue with China in a purely diplomatic manner, then in the nearest future, due to trend of annual deterioration of situation, Russia is very likely to express its discontent.

Going back to Kazakhstan, due to scientists’ estimate the water resources of the Central Asian state have decreased by 20 billion m3 over the past 50 years, and the process is currently being accelerated. This has been happening due to the fact that almost all rivers of the country are cross-border rivers. During high-water year the cross-border Black Irtysh, Ili, Chu, Talas, Ural and Syr Darya and some others rivers bring nearly 44 km3 of water to Kazakhstan, whereas the country’s available water resources are totaling at 100,5 km3. At the same time the largest volume of water from cross-border rivers, which is about 18,9 km3, comes to Kazakhstan from China. Kazakhstan is on one of the last places among the CIS countries by the overall water availability. Specific water availability is 37 thousand m3 per 1 km2 and 6 thousand m3 per person per year.

Obviously, the regulation of interstate water relations of any country is more than relevant. The problem of transboundary rivers being a factor of safety of Kazakhstan and Russia are not only of economic and environmental importance but also of strategic magnitude for these countries. Today, even the ill-informed in politics philistine realizes that water issue can serve as a "breeding ground" for the emergence of a regional conflict between those countries on the one hand and China on the other.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many aspects of the use of cross-border rivers have remained unresolved at the international level to this day. The legal framework of cooperation between Kazakhstan and China regarding water resources is of rather common declarative character and does not fully respond to today's realities. A number of environmental problems in the basins of major cross-border rivers such as Irtysh and Ili have accumulated in recent decades. According to specialists the total withdrawal of water from the Irtysh river could rise to 37% of the annual water supply as a result of construction of series of drainage canals and reservoirs on Irtysh, carried out by the PRC. By introduction of the channel "Black Irtysh – Karamay”, China has launched the annual withdrawal of water from the Irtysh River in the amount of more than 450 million m3. In the future, volume of withdrawal is planned to increase to 1.5 billion m3. At the moment China withdraws 800 million m3 of water per year from the Irtysh basin for production on the oil field near Karamay city. But even a slight further increase in water withdrawal possesses a threat to the livelihood of the lake Zaisan in the East Kazakhstan region.

Given that the total water resources of Irtysh reaches about 9 billion m3, the planned withdrawal of water from the river will have disastrous consequences for both economy and ecology not only for Kazakhstan but also Russia. As known, the Irtysh is the largest tributary of the Russian River Ob. The International law stipulates the right of other coastal states on receiving the information and advice on planned or carried out activities on the international rivers, however the Chinese side, increasing the intake of these rivers, not follow the principles and norms of the international law. Meanwhile, there are other problems apart from the Irtysh. The Chinese side uses the water of the Ili to irrigate 400 hectares of its land, and in the future, this area is likely to be increased to 600 thousand ha. It is worth recalling that the Balkhash-Alakol hydroelectric complex of Kazakhstan is also linked to the PRC. More than half of the flow of Lake Balkhash depends on China. 50% of the total volume of surface water of Lake Balkhash is formed in the basin of the Ili river, most of it come from China.

Now about 12 billion m3 of water per year is coming to in Kazakhstan, in the future the volume may drop to 10 billion m3, which would affect the situation in Lake Balkhash and Kapshagay reservoir. Balkhash Lake provides water for metals and energy industries and plays an important role in the economy of the country. Further increase in water intake from the river would put the agricultural sector and fisheries in a difficult situation. In addition, shallowing and salification of Lake Balkhash would adversely affect the climatic balance of the entire central and south-eastern regions of Kazakhstan. The area of Lake Balkhash where the river flows into the lake, is now facing severe water shortages, whereas China's planned withdrawal of water drain will facilitate elimination of the largest part of the lake and can potentially lead to environmental disaster in the region, which subsequently would adversely affect the ecology of the neighboring states.

Today, cross-border rivers’ water resources are strategic for many countries. Do not forget the most important thing - water is the source of life. Without solving present problems of water resources, where a key concern is dealing with the problems of water use of cross-border rivers with China, there is a real danger of emergence of new regional and political conflicts.








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