Troubled Waters of Transborder Rivers

The problem of water supply has been an Achilles heel of Kazakhstan. True, this country has rich natural resources, vast territory, and well-educated population. But, its water supply is deficient. A May 9, 2008, publication China is Depriving Kazakhstan of Water, Struan Stevenson says that «during the last few years, the volume of water supply has been diminishing because of its increased use by neighbouring countries. The level of water supply in Kazakhstan is currently amongst the lowest in Central Asia”. Moreover, major Kazakh rivers, like Irtysh, Ili and Ural, have their headwaters abroad. Unfavorable geographical conditions have been often aggravated by political and economical complications. Recently, Kirghiz-Russian project to build a hydroelectric power plant has sparked an indignation among some politicians and experts in Kazakhstan  and Uzbekistan – the downstream countries, which will experience water shortage if the project is implemented. But, the situation with Sino-Kazakh and Sino-Russian transborder rivers is definitely more alarming. Unchecked ambitions of Beijing pose a serious threat to Kazakhstan both politically and economically.

Negative Background

Markedly pro-Chinese stance of certain Kazakh politicians (Karim Massimov, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, and others) has considerably facilitated Beijing’s expansion into Kazakhstan and Central Asia. When Mr. Tokayev was the Kazakh foreign minister in the mid-1990s, his assistance was instrumental in surrendering hundreds of square kilometers of Kazakhstan’s Southeast to China. Mr. Massimov, during his more than five-year tenure as the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, burdened our budget with rather questionable multibillion loans from China. Along with president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, he contributed greatly to the wider admission of Chinese companies to the oil and gas market of Kazakhstan. For example, the former Mayor of Almaty Viktor Khrapunov in his interview (given to Swiss newspaper Le Temps on 27 December, 2011) remarks that Timur Kulibayev, who controls oil companies, has imported cheap Chinese labor force, whereas poor living conditions of Kazakhstan’s population have not been taken into consideration («Par l’entremise de son gendre Timur Koulibaïev, qui contrôle les sociétés pétrolières, il importe de la main-d’oeuvre chinoise à bas prix au mépris des conditions de vie de sa propre population»).

China has been notorious for its arrogant attitude towards international treaties concerning environmental issues. Beijing also avoids multilateral talks on the transborder rivers. The Chinese prefer to deal with Kazakhstan and Russia separately.  In his paper, published on May 16, 2007, Sebastien Peyrouse writes that «as long as the negotiations remain bilateral, Kazakhstan will have difficulties in making itself heard». Besides, they have successfully included clauses to bilateral agreements (with Kazakhstan and Russia respectively), which are beneficial exclusively for the Chinese. Russian expert Kseniya Muratshina mentions that the 4th clause of a Sino-Kazakh agreement  states that no party can put limitations on the other party’s rational use and protection of water resources of the transborder rivers subject to mutual interests (“А статья 4 имеет неоднозначное толкование: «Ни одна из сторон не ограничивает другую сторону рационально использовать и охранять водные ресурсы трансграничных рек с учетом взаимных интересов”). Of course, such clause is favorable solely for the upstream China.

A transborder river.

Making an interregional comparison, Kerry Raymond Bolton in his essay Water Wars: Rivalry Over Water Resources points out that «the Irtysh River, which shares borders with China, Kazakhstan and Russia places relations between these states in the same predicament as that of India and the PRC over the Brahmaputra, despite Chinese assurances» (World Affairs, Spring 2010, Vol 14, No 1). It is clear that Beijing exerts the same policy towards its other neighbors, even more powerful than Kazakhstan.

Predatory Approach

Unjust actions of the Chinese in the field of water supply policy adversely affect environmental conditions both in Kazakhstan and Russia. But, the Kazakhs also suffer in terms of damage to their political and economical independence. Because, Beijing has turned its water supply policy into one of the tools to pressure Kazakhstan to still more concessions in Sino-Kazakh bilateral relations. Kazakh journalist Serik Karabas laments bitterly that if the Chinese dam Ili and Irtysh rivers, when we would be forced to beg them for mercy («Іле мен Ертістің суын бұрып алып, тамшы татырмай қатырса өзіңнен-өзің Қытайдың аяғына жығыласың»). As you can see, native Kazakhs assess the situation much more emotionally than outsiders.

Egocentric approach, employed by Chinese leaders, can have a boomerang effect. China itself would face environmental issues, if the transborder rivers to be exploited excessively. For instance, Chinese industrial wasteproducts dumped into the Argun River, which is a part of the Sino-Russian natural frontier, have harmful effects on the perpetrators too (“… границы зон острого экологического кризиса на территории Китая находятся всего в 500 километрах к югу от российских границ и неуклонно расширяются”). The Chinese leadership places too much emphasys on short-term industrial development rather than long-term environmental issues. It reminds me basically mediocre quality of consumer electronics made in China. As a rule, these gadgets need to be repaired or even replaced after just two or three years of operation.

Global Indiffirence

International community generally has been unaware of potential disputes around the transborder rivers. Insignificant events, such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summits, hardly impress the general public. Kazakh government spends annually a lot of money on dubious events like religious forums and president Nazarbayev’s publicity, but it is too shy to tell the world about grave environmental issues concerning the transborder rivers.

As any wrongdoer, Chinese water authorities would try to evade the limelight of major media outlets. Therefore, Kazakh government shouldn’t hesitate to launch a massive PR-campaign against the violation of Kazakhstan’s national interests by its arrogant neighbor. Astana doesn’t have military and economical capabilities to counter Beijing’s predatory approach. That is why, an asymmetric, non-orthodox measures should be taken to protect vital interests of the country.

One should keep in mind that the arrogant approach, exerted by the Chinese, directed not only against Russia and Kazakhstan, but also against India, Vietnam, and other Asian countries. Therefore, the affected countries must be more cooperative in resolving this issue. They should remember that conflicts in the world, dominated by several nuclear powers, are waged primarily with economic tools. No wonder that China relies heavily on its formidable industrial and financial capabilities in order to put pressure on its weaker neighbors. Such unfriendly actions must be counterbalanced by appropriate measures like the boycott of certain Chinese commodities, for instance.

Finally, one should not rule out a possibility that third parties may benefit from conflicts over water resources in Asia. For example, WWII, which devastated mainly Europe and Far East, was a highly profitable war for certain countries in North America and South America.

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