So much for the Russia-China alliance!
The Irtysh river flows out of the mountains of Mongolia down through the northwest corner of China, through Kazakhstan and then down into Russia towards its basins in the Actic. The major Russian city of Omsk stands on its banks. Paul Goble reports that Russia’s beloved ally China is about to show its love for Russia by turning off the spigots:
By unilaterally taking out of the Irtysh far more water than ever before, China has put at risk the economies and populations of downstream communities in Kazakhstan and Russian Federation, threatened a delicate eco-system and raised questions about Beijing’s plans regarding other trans-border rivers in the Russian Far East.
According to Zhanaidar Ramazanov, head of the Independent Association of Water Users in Kazakhstan, China is currently planning to increase its annual withdrawal of water from the Irtysh from one billion cubic meters to 4.6 billion cubic meters in the immediate future to support development in Xinjiang, an amount equal to 68 cubic meters every second.
Because China’s action is so threatening, Russian ecological commentator Dmitry Verkhoturov argues in his report on this development, both Moscow and Astana are seeking to force China to accede to the 1992 Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-Boundary Watercourses.
That accord requires that upstream states ensure that downstream states receive water in roughly the same amount and same quality as the former took in from rivers passing through both, in the absence of separate bilateral agreements modifying such rules. Of the three states involved in this dispute, however, only Kazakhstan is a signatory to the Helsinki Convention.
The Russian government is concerned not only because the Chinese action is contributing to the desertification of Omsk Oblast but also because Beijing’s unilateral action “openly ignored” Russian national interests and suggests that China may adopt a similar approach in the even more sensitive Amur River basin in the Russian Far East.
Indeed, Russian geographer Veniamin Gotvansky told Verkhoturov that China has already announced plans to build a hydro-electric dam on the Amur and to increase the use of water from the Amur and Ussuri rivers, actions that will have the most serious consequences for Russians and others living downstream.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is already beginning to suffer as a result of China’s actions on the Irtysh, the Russian commentator continues, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed to his Kazakhstan counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev to develop a common approach and thus enter talks with China “as a united front.” The public face of this agreement consists of ongoing efforts to create an international social foundation on “Saving the Irtysh,” a group that Kazakhstan’s Ramazanov says will open the way for Omsk and Pavlodar to jointly “resolve problems connected with the continuing degradation of the quality of water in the Irtysh.”
But the issue is not just about water quality. This year’s spring flow of the Irtysh through the two countries was the lowest “for the last 20 years,” Verkhoturov reports, a falloff that “violated the necessary conditions for the seasonal spawning of many kinds of fish.” As a result, millions of them died without spawning, pointing to still more problems ahead. As a result, he continues, “a ‘water union’ between Russia and Kazakhstan will be formed already in the near future,” with both Moscow and Astana pressing Beijing to accede to the Helsinki Convention, “the only internationally recognized legal basis for the development of bi- and multi-lateral accords and agreements” on this subject.
The refusal of China to agree to do so, Kazakhstan environmental minister Nurgali Ashimov suggests, is both selfish and undermines international norms. But he acknowledges that it is difficult to press Beijing to sign when except for Kazakhstan, no other country in the region has done so. Despite that, there has been some movement in a positive direction, Verkhoturov reports. Last year, Beijing and Astana agreed “to organize joint points on the trans-border rivers” which would be in a position to “warn about the appearance of various ecological problems and control the amount of flows.”
Kazakhstan has lived up to its part of the bargain on rivers flowing from its territory into China, but with regard to the Irtysh which flows in the other direction, “the situation is exactly the reverse.” China is taking more water out of the flow and contaminating more water that it does allow to go downstream than the Helsinki Convention allows. According to some experts, China is taking so much water out of the Irtysh that Kazakhstan and Russia will have to make due with a flow of less than a cubic kilometer a year, an amount, Verkhoturov warns, that will put “the future of entire regions of Russia and Kazakhstan in the hands of China.”