Located a two-hour drive from the Kazakh border, the area around the Chinese city of Yining hardly seems beset by water difficulties. The land, well watered by the Ili River and its tributaries, remains lush and green despite the brutal summer heat. Seasoned local farmers are unable to recall a time when their irrigation channels dried up.
But this border area – as well as other, drier parts of northwest China's Xinjiang province – is at the heart of a battle for one of Central Asia's most overlooked resources: water.
On the upstream side is Beijing, an economic behemoth committed to shrinking its growing wealth gap by developing the country's interior. The plan, sometimes known as the Go West policy, hinges in part on access to water for drinking, energy generation, agriculture and industry, especially in arid areas such as Xinjiang.
Downstream are Kazakhstan and Siberian Russia, developing in their own right but a far cry from China's breakneck growth. Rivers that originate in China – mainly the Irtysh, which crosses the Kazakh northeast before entering Russia, and the Ili, which ends in Kazakhstan – are essential to the two states, for the same reasons that Beijing needs them.
Economic demands aside, environmentalists worry that if the Chinese continue to increase their diversions from the Ili and Irtysh, the damage to the regional environment will be irreversible. But as the rows of new apartment houses springing up in Yining and other parts of Xinjiang attest, China is unlikely to apply the brakes on western development.
Most imperilled is the fragile Lake Balkhash, an enormous body of water in Kazakhstan whose basin covers one-fifth of the country's 15 million people, including its financial capital, Almaty. The fifteenth largest lake in the world, it has an average depth of less than 6 metres, and its combination of size and shallowness leaves it especially vulnerable to fluctuations in water supply.
After crossing the border near Yining and pooling behind Kazakhstan's Kapchagai hydroelectric station, the Ili's flow terminates in Lake Balkhash. It provides 80% of the lake's water.
Leading Kazakh environmentalist and two-time presidential candidate Mels Eleusizov said increased Chinese diversion of the river will produce an "ecological catastrophe" around the lake, particularly when combined with the effects of global warming on the area's glaciers. Although it is known that Beijing hopes to develop the river and its tributaries for agriculture and electricity generation, the extent of Chinese plans for harnessing the Ili remains unclear.
Conjuring memories of the sharp reduction in the Aral Sea, one of the world's worst man-made environmental disasters, Eleusizov described a nightmare scenario of Balkhash's division into several smaller lakes and the spread of desertification throughout the area. Worse still, he said, the Aral disaster showed that airborne salt from the evaporation of Balkhash would land on glaciers and make them melt all the more quickly. He emphasised that glaciers supplying water to Almaty and many parts of Xinjiang would be at risk.
"One needs to approach this from the interests of the entire basin. [The Chinese] need to understand that if Balkhash dies, so do China's glacier's," Eleusizov said. The people moving into Xinjiang as part of the Go West campaign, he said, "will also be left without water."
Igor Malkovsky, deputy director of Kazakhstan's Institute of Geography, agreed with Eleusizov that the anticipated spike in Chinese water use from the Ili was the most immediate and dire threat to Balkhash. However, he said, the evidence remained inconclusive that salt from Central Asia's disappearing lakes would speed glacial melt. According to Malkovsky, global warming was the main culprit for the reduction in local glaciers, which are diminishing at an average rate of 1% each year.
Abdusalih Nurbay, a professor of ecology at Xinjiang University in the regional capital of Urumqi, said China should not be blamed for Balkhash's problems. Fluctuations in the lake's level, he said, were more the result of manipulation by the Kazakhs.
"Balkhash's level is going down because they built the Kapchagai reservoir" in 1970, he said, thereby permanently hindering the flow of the Ili. Nurbay said management of the Balkhash basin would best be conducted jointly, but also stressed that Chinese plans to use the Ili would not have a substantial effect on the amount of water reaching Balkhash.
Others were less sanguine. Malkovsky estimated that in the coming years Chinese diversions of the Ili would increase from five cubic kilometres annually to more than seven. A Chinese local government official with knowledge of the subject said his government planned to take far more, perhaps as much as three times the current level of diversion.
For an example of the grand scale of Chinese plans for Xinjiang water management, one need only look to the Irtysh. In 1999 Beijing completed a 300-kilometre long canal from the river, which is called the Black Irtysh at that point, to feed the oil boomtown of Karamai. Ending triumphally in a city park complete with water-spewing dragons, the channel may ultimately siphon off up to 40% of the Irtysh's flow, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan told RFE/RL in 2005. Both Russia and Kazakhstan are reliant on the Irtysh – in some cases via Soviet-era canals of their own – for drinking water and other uses.
Despite the object lesson of the Aral Sea and the example provided by China's diversion of the Irtysh, environmentalists say the Kazakh government has done little to counter the Chinese plans for the Ili. A recent upswing in Balkhash's water level, which some link to the rapid melting of the glaciers, is one explanation for the lack of urgency. Another reason is China's growing thirst for Kazakh oil and gas, and the subsequent reluctance of Kazakhstan's policymakers to rock the boat.
Moreover, the Kazakhs signed away most of their leverage, said Eric Sievers, an environmental lawyer who has studied Central Asian water policy. He noted that while a September 2001 agreement between the two countries mandates consultations on any use of cross-border rivers, it also states that neither side has any power to veto the other's plans. In addition, the Chinese have not signed the two major international agreements regulating the use of trans-boundary waterways.
The confluence of these factors amounts to an accident waiting to happen, Eleusizov said, spurred first and foremost by unsustainable growth strategies on both sides.
"China is creating a formidable problem [of] tomorrow. Today it is not noticeable, because everywhere there is this agitation for development of the economy," he said. "But this kind of development is very dangerous."
Jack Carino is a freelance journalist and photographer specialising in China and Central Asia.