Challenges to the sustainable use of water resources in the Ili River basin of Central Asia
Water is a scarce resource in Central Asia, and many catchments span international boundaries, among them that of the Ili River, which is shared by China and Kazakhstan. Since 1970, the natural hydrological regime of the Ili River, both absolute flow rates and cycles, has changed due to construction of reservoirs such as that at Kapchagai, as well as natural climatic cycles and the growth of water consumption in the basin. Using data from Kazhydromet, we calculated that flow rates below Kapchagai dam averaged 468 m3/sec before construction of the dam, 366 m3/sec while the reservoir was being filled, and 489 m3/sec between 1988 and 2013. The dam has profoundly altered the annual cycle of flows in the river, with reductions in the summer and increases in the winter, when water is released to produce hydropower. The effects of these changes are being heightened by China’s increasing diversion of the river’s water. The sustainable use of decreasing water resources to conserve the biodiversity of the Ili-Balkhash basin’s ecosystems mandates a solution to the water allocation challenge between China and Kazakhstan. This will require a basin-wide approach that includes modernization of water distribution systems and careful consideration to relative priority needs for food, hydropower, and communal uses in both countries.