Russia's control of Ural river sets stage for environmental catastrophe in Kazakhstan

By Kanat Altynbayev

The Ural river can be seen in this photo taken in October 2021. [Raul Uporov]

The Ural river can be seen in this photo taken in October 2021. [Raul Uporov]

ALMATY -- Russian authorities are keeping water from the Ural river in their nation's reservoirs, leading water levels in the basin to hit record lows and causing the ecosystem in Kazakhstan to die out, environmentalists say.

Moreover, Russia is planning to build another dam without the consent of its southern neighbour.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on November 8 voiced "serious concern" about the declining water levels in the Ural river, which flows from Russia.

In recent years, the water level of the river -- already shallow -- has been dropping. The environmental condition of the river has also deteriorated, according to Tokayev's website.

Lawmakers take part in the 16th Kazakh-Russian Interparliamentary Commission in June 2021, which discussed the dropping water levels in the Ural river. [Kazakh Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources]

Lawmakers take part in the 16th Kazakh-Russian Interparliamentary Commission in June 2021, which discussed the dropping water levels in the Ural river. [Kazakh Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources]

"I have repeatedly raised this difficult issue at the international level. Kazakhstan and Russia have signed several agreements on the environment, protection of biodiversity and use of transboundary rivers," Tokayev said.

"In deepening our co-operation in this area with our neighbours, we need to make an effort to ensure that the agreements are implemented completely," he said.

Extreme shrinkage

Local environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about the extreme shrinkage of the Ural river.

The third-longest river in Europe, the Ural starts in Chelyabinsk region in Russia, crosses through northwestern Kazakhstan and discharges into the Caspian Sea.

Because of the declining volume of water in the river, floodplain forests in western Kazakhstan have begun to dry out. Towns and villages situated along the river have also been suffering from a severe water shortage.

Water levels began falling in 2005, reaching a historic low in 2018, according to authorities of West Kazakhstan province.

That year, Kazakh and Russian officials and environmentalists held several joint meetings to discuss the problem.

The water level in the river continued to drop even more in 2019 and reached critical levels. The pollution level was also deemed extreme.

Since then, the situation has not changed, with Russia's water policies chiefly to blame.

One of the main reasons the river's water level is falling is that not enough water is being discharged into it from Russia.

The Iriklin Reservoir is playing a role in the Ural's declining water levels, Vladimir Samsonov, who manages a shipyard in Uralsk, near the Russian border, told Caravanserai.

The Iriklin Reservoir, the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Orenburg region of Russia, is owned by the Russian energy company Inter RAO.

"The Iriklin hydroelectric power plant is holding back water, and according to my research, this has already been going on for many years," Samsonov said.

"This year we asked [Russia] to increase the water discharge to 60 cubic metres per second, but we didn't get that," Marat Mashekenov, director of the water resources department of the Department of Natural Resources of West Kazakhstan province, told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in November 2021.

Discharge was 15 cubic metres per second at the time.

Russia violates the law

Kazakh officials each year ask their Russian counterparts not to hold back such large volumes of water but to no avail, said Serik Makhambetov, an environmentalist from Atyrau.

"According to international documents and intergovernmental agreements with Kazakhstan, Russia has no right to limit the water discharge to this extent," Makhambetov told Caravanserai.

"But it's like the laws don't apply to them."

The two countries in 2010 signed the Agreement on Joint Use and Protection of Transboundary Water Bodies, but since then the water level in the Ural has dropped by 150%.

Meanwhile, Russia has announced plans for more dams along the Ural river.

Alexander Sambursky, the minister of natural resources, ecology and property relations of Orenburg in Russia, announced in March 2021 that plans were in place to build another overflow dam on the Ural river near the city of Orenburg.

The project, aimed at improving "municipal water intake", was expected to cost 300 million RUB ($5 million).

The announcement drew criticism from Kazakh lawmakers.

"According to the UN [United Nations] Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, countries must harmonise the construction of dams and reservoirs with adjacent states. It's unclear why [the Russian authorities] are not co-ordinating [with Kazakhstan]," Dyusenbai Turganov, a deputy in the Majlis (lower chamber of parliament), said in spring 2021 in an interview with Ak Zhaiyk.

"I oppose the construction of this dam," he said.

Turganov accused Russia of flouting the convention and the agreement with Kazakhstan on the joint use of transboundary bodies of water.

Then-Kazakh Vice Minister of Ecology Yerlan Nysanbayev told Ak Zhaiyk at the time that Russia was obligated to inform Kazakhstan about plans to build a dam on the river but that it had not done so.

The ministry learned of the decision from the media, Nysanbayev said.

Kazakhstan also sent Russian authorities an official message through diplomatic channels about the construction of the overflow dam, but Russia never replied, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar said two months later.

Water has become a valuable strategic resource in Central Asia that has fallen into Russia's hands, said Makhambetov the environmentalist.

"Unfortunately, we have a neighbour who couldn't care less about official agreements, good-neighbourly relations or the environment," Makhambetov said. "It's a pity for the Ural."

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Russia always violates treaties; we've got to do something anyway, or we will lose the river