Either Too Much, Or Too Little: Oddities Happening with Water of Largest River in Kazakhstan

cover Photo: Krot.info

The big news about water in Kazakhstan this year was the crisis in the south of the country, where a drought broke out due to the shallowing of rivers originating in Kyrgyzstan. Problems with water have also arisen in the north-east of the country. In the Pavlodar region, the water level in the Irtysh has fallen. People even have begun to talk about how the largest river in Kazakhstan is also getting shallow. But in the fall it turned out that this was not the case. There is a lot of water in the Irtysh again. Even too much.

Orda.kz found out what caused such fluctuations: is China to blame for this, or are there domestic factors?


The Irtysh, being the largest river in Kazakhstan, is also the largest cross-border river. It begins in China, and flows into the Ob in Russia. Therefore, thinking that China, located upstream, was drawing all the water out, causing the Irtysh to shallow, seemed quite justified. China is indeed taking more and more water from the river for the needs of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, whose population is only growing. And the issue of water intake between China and Kazakhstan has yet to be resolved. There is an agreement concluded in 2002 on cooperation in the use and protection of transboundary rivers. But its vague wording is a cause for confusion.

For example, article 4 of this agreement states:

Neither Side restricts the other Side to rationally use and protect the water resources of transboundary rivers, taking into account mutual interests.

There are plans to sign an agreement on water allocation between Kazakhstan and China, but it has been discussed for 10 years.

However, this theory seemed logical only until autumn. In mid-October, the water in the seemingly shallow Irtysh suddenly began to rise. So much that the river overflowed its banks in some places. What happened to the Irtysh? According to Pavlodar experts, this has nothing to do with China.

Dry Spring, Wet Autumn

According to the chairman of the association "Ecoforum of Kazakhstan", Svetlana Mogilyuk, China has a minimal impact on the volume of water in the Irtysh, as it accounts for only a third of the total flow. Most of it falls on Kazakhstan and Russia. And on the RK to a greater extent.

This, in particular, is indicated by the figures given in the draft "Concept of development of the water resources management system of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2023-2029". It states that over 10 years, the flow of water from the PRC has decreased by 21.5%.

But if you look at the figures in absolute terms, the total annual flow of the Irtysh is 95 cubic kilometers, and from China it fell by 2.1 cubic kilometers.

For comparison: the annual flow of the Amu Darya is about 73 cubic kilometers, and its flow from Uzbekistan during the same time fell by 10.2 cubic kilometers.

In relation to the Irtysh, such a word as "shallowing" should not be used. Because this river is maximally regulated by a cascade of reservoirs. Primarily, Bukhtarma and Shulbinsky, says Svetlana Mogilyuk.

Natural processes, according to her, also have an affect. For instance, regular low-water years, including 2023. She nonetheless calls the "human factor" the main one for the water level in the river.

Bukhtarma reservoir. Photo: Visit East Qaqzaqstan.

Majilis deputy from Pavlodar region, Nurzhan Ashimbetov, agrees with her. Their mutual opinion is that the issues with water in the Irtysh this year were caused precisely by improper regulation at water reservoirs.

In the spring, part of the water from reservoirs should be discharged into the floodplain of the river. This is the so-called environmental release. But, for example, in the Bukhtarma reservoir, they do not accumulate the proper amount of water for this. This year there were only 24 cubic kilometers with a design capacity of 49 cubic kilometers, the deputy says.

It is the absence of spring discharge that both Ashimbetov and Mogilyuk explain the decrease in the water level in the Irtysh. 

When we began to find out why we were not given water in the spring, we received the answer that there were three reasons for that. The first is the construction of a bridge over the Bukhtarma reservoir, which would have been hindered by a large volume of water. The second is that power engineers earn money on water discharge. The third is that they simply do not know how to regulate water. And this is the worst of all,  Nurzhan Ashimbetov says.

And experts associate the autumn overflowing of the Irtysh with incorrect calculations.

Maybe no one would have noticed the discharge if the river had not overflowed its banks. But it flooded the floodplain. Some farms were flooded with hay in it, which they had already prepared with difficulty this year. And when we began to find out what the reason was, we got the answer — it was the discharge of excess water. Although the volumes of the Bukhtarma reservoir allow it to accumulate, Ashimbetov notes.

In Real Time

According to Svetlana Mogilyuk, in order to prevent this from happening in the future, it is necessary to radically change the state strategy for the allocation of water resources. In particular, as she believes, we must not forget that a river, especially one as large as the Irtysh, is not only a river course, but also its entire basin. 

Water transport workers, speaking about rivers, often proceed from the technical parameters of the flow, considering rivers as channels or in general as water supply systems. And they completely do not take into account the role of basin territories, where the river flow is formed. The surface on which the watercourse is formed is not taken into account, says Svetlana Mogilyuk.

Mogilyuk urges to change the approaches to forecasting in order to avoid the very errors in calculations that led to the "autumn flood" on the Irtysh in October 2023.

Nurzhan Ashimbetov, in turn, hopes that the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, created last September, will play its role in solving the problem. He has already sent an appeal there with a request to take measures to ensure that the Bukhtarma reservoir is filled by three quarters by next spring — up to 36-37 cubic kilometers. He also proposes to provide open access to information about the volume of water discharges from reservoirs.

To know when to sound the alarm, he explains.

And in the near future, the Majilis deputy calls for solving another task: to appoint an independent head to the Yertis basin Inspection.

This inspection has not had a head for more than a year. There is only an acting one. Although it is the basin inspection that should monitor and prohibit such unauthorized discharges, says Nurzhan Ashimbetov.

According to Svetlana Mogilyuk, a problem is potentially brewing for the Irtysh because of gold mining enterprises. The process of creating them is now underway on its tributaries. She believes that this may affect the basin flows into the Irtysh. But so far this is only a potential problem. The situation with reservoirs, however, is a legitimate issue.

Original Author: Igor Ulitin

DISCLAIMER: This is a translated piece. The text has been modified, the content is the same. Please refer to the original piece in Russian for accuracy. 

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