China cooperates with Central Asia over shared rivers

China has taken surprising steps to cooperate with Kazakhstan over shared rivers, but is unlikely to extend such generosity to its neighbours in South Asia, argues Sebastian Biba.

China has a bad record when it comes to water cooperation. It was one of only three countries (along with Turkey and Burundi) to vote against the UN Watercourses Convention - the only global agreement on the use of international watercourses - when it was adopted in 1997. China controls the water flowing into neighbouring countries, as it is the upstream country for most of Asia’s major rivers. Yet China has not signed any comprehensive river treaty that regulates the distribution of water. It has also been reluctant to set up, or join, existing inter-state river commissions.

Above all, in recent years China has received blame for not disclosing information about its dam-building activities and possible river diversion plans to downstream neighbours along several of its transboundary rivers. This has been especially true for its southern rivers, such as the Mekong, which China shares with Southeast Asian countries, and the Brahmaputra, which flows from Tibet into India and Bangladesh.

In Central Asia, China’s international hydro-politics primarily involve Kazakhstan. China’s vast Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Kazakhstan not only share a 1,700-kilometre long border, but also 20 rivers, among which the Irtysh and the Ili are the largest. The Irtysh River originates in China’s Altai mountains, crosses into Kazakhstan, and finally flows into Russia where it joins the Ob River and spill out into the Arctic Ocean. The Ili River also rises in Xinjiang and later flows into Kazakhstan, where it terminates in Lake Balkhash, providing more than 50% of the lake’s fresh water. Both rivers are sources of water for Kazakhstan.

Unlike concerns along the Mekong and Brahmaputra, Chinese construction of large dams for hydropower generation is not the problem in the Irtysh and Ili basins. Rather, downstream Kazakhstan has worried about China’s increasing water use in a region where the resource is scarce. Since the late 1980s China has built canals to divert water away from the mainstream. What’s more, in October 2004 China’s then ambassador to Kazakhstan confirmed that his country was counting on consuming as much as 40% of the Irtysh’s flow. China uses up to 70% of the Ili, according to some estimates. These figures exceed China's proportional share of the two river basins.

Xinjiang’s thirsty development

The reasons for China’s enormous water withdrawals need to be understood in light of China’s 2003 White Paper on Xinjiang, which made a case for the expansion of cotton and energy industries as part of the ongoing 'Develop the West’ campaign. This has resulted in an unsustainable growth in water use. Cotton is a highly water-intensive crop, yet now takes up about half of Xinjiang’s arable land; Beijing regards textile exports to be of strategic interest. Xinjiang is also China’s leading domestic oil producer. To guarantee the future development of oil fields, water diversion schemes for the Irtysh and the Ili are considered inevitable. On top of this, continuing large-scale population migration into Xinjiang from other provinces will also intensify the demand for water.

For downstream Kazakhstan, China’s huge water withdrawals are likely to precipitate several adverse effects. Rice production, for example, has already decreased. Hydropower generation and navigability could also be affected. The Irtysh is also the main source of fresh water for around 15 million people, mostly living in Kazakhstan’s bigger northeastern cities, including the capital Astana. Water shortages could threaten urban and industrial development there. Environmentalists have warned that Lake Balkhash could become a desert, like the Aral Sea.

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