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Water resources

Water is life-and in continental and precipitation-strapped Kazakhstan this saying has profound meaning. The country has a wide variety of water resources. To the west, Kazakhstan borders the Caspian Sea-or Caspian Lake, as it should actually be called, since with a surface varying between 374,000 and 438,000 square kilometres it is the largest inland water basin on Earth. Having no outlet, and supplied by several rivers, the mightiest of which are the Volga and the Ural, evaporation is the main factor determining its water level. Situated in the Caspian Depression, its deepest point is 980 metres. In its northern sector, off the coast of Kazakhstan, however, the waters are extremely shallow. This zone's salty water is particularly appreciated by sturgeon species such as the osetra and sevruga, as well as Caspian seals.

Scientists are mystified by the sharp fluctuation in the level of this vast lake. In the 1970s and 80s, explanations blamed large reservoirs along the Volga. Other scientists claimed that water was "disappearing" into subterranean fissures in the Kara Bogas Gol (Bay of Kara Bogas) in Turkmenistan. Tectonic movement in this relatively active seismic zone has also been cited as the reason for the water level's fluctuation. Of late, the Caspian Sea is on the rise again. Some suspect that a thin layer of oil, originating from the numerous test and production drilling operations in the northern and western parts of the shelf, prevents evaporation. Other theories are based on uplifts in the floor of the sea. Whatever the cause, what is undisputed is that the Caspian needs greater protection because of its role in moderating the region's climate, its unique flora and fauna, and for the survival of its coastal inhabitants.

The tragedy concerning Lake Aral, once the fourth-largest inland water basin in the world, which Kazakhstanis reverently call Aralskoye Morye, the Aral Sea, has been widely reported throughout the world. The people who lived on its shores were once proud of the beauty of its turquoise surface, its wealth of fish resources, its wildlife in the river deltas of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and its picturesque isles-the Kazakh word "aral" means island. Its 65,000-square-kilometre surface area once almost equalled that of Ireland.

Tragically, the gigantic Soviet irrigation projects of the 1950s, called the Virgin Lands reclamation programme, have cost the lake its life. Driven by the ambition to turn the Soviet Union into an important exporter of cotton, planners pushed their luck too far. Their open canals, dug through the hot desert sands over distances of hundreds of kilometres, allowed more water to evaporate than eventually reached the crops. Nowadays the once mighty rivers of the Amu Darya (2,540km) and Syr Darya (2,800km) end up for much of the year as pitiful rivulets where the Aral's coast used to be. The Aral shores have been retreating from the former coastline for decades; where once tigers roamed through the delta's reed thickets, a forbidding emptiness now prevails. Only two small partial lakes of the once vast Aral Sea remain, the "Lesser Aral" in the north, and a narrow, crescent-shaped area of water on the western shore. The northern segment, fed by the Syr Darya, has begun to grow again, after the implementation of stabilising measures several years ago, whereby dams cut off the flow to the larger southern area, effectively sounding its death knelt. The remaining western lobe will disappear sooner or later, because it has no link to the Amu Darya, which once flowed into it. A 50,000-square-kilometre desert, the Aralkum, now covers the former seabed, the thick salt layers mixed with the remnants of the fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides used in the cotton fields. An entire region has turned into a disaster zone, with people living under dreadful climatic, epidemiological and social conditions.

Glaciers within the mountain ranges of the Tien Shan, Zailiyskiy and Zhungar Alatau and Altai feed numerous rivers. Thus, in the south the Land of Seven Rivers ("Semirechye" in Russian, "Zhetisu" in Kazakh), a fertile piece of land the size of Hungary and Greece combined, is crossed by a large number of rivers that have their origin in the Zailiyskiy Alatau. The largest among them, the Ili, which has been dammed to the northeast of Almaty by the large reservoir of Kapshagay, is the main water supply of Lake Balkhash further downstream. This lake, with a surface of 18,200 square kilometres, has become Kazakhstan's biggest inland water basin as the Aral Sea dries up. In the southwest, where the Ili flows in, the water is fresh, whereas beyond the Uzynaral Peninsula in the east it becomes salty. Almost all steppe lakes are shallow and salty; with no outlet, the minerals and salt that flow into them accumulate fast. The best known among these is Lake Tengiz, to the southwest of Astana. In the east, near the Zhtingar Gate, is the relatively shallow and fish-rich Alakol, also a salt lake, with a surface area of 2,100 square kilometres.

The Ertis (also Yertis, or Irtysh in Russian) has its source in the Altai. This mighty river, however, is losing more and more of its strength, because on the Chinese side of the mountains the steadily growing population increasingly taps its upstream resources. The Ili is also threatened with a similar fate, unless politicians in both countries can come to an understanding and effect a mutually agreeable and lasting solution.

With a total length of 4,250 kilometres, the Ertis makes its way through eastern and northern Kazakhstan for 1,700 kilometres. It flows into Lake Zaysan's eastern end, and out of it again 100 kilometres away from its northwestern tip. After another 340 kilometres, it flows into the Bukhtarminsk Reservoir, after which, already on Russian territory, it joins the Esil (also Yesil, or Ishim in Russian) that comes from the Kazakh steppe. Finally, it joins the Ob, one of the largest rivers in the world.

From the Ural Mountains originates the river of the same name (in modern Kazakh Oral, in ancient Kazakh Zhayik), which makes its way through northwestern Kazakhstan until it flows into the Caspian Sea south of Atyrau. With its broad meandering, it is a good example of a river that has remained largely unharmed and left in its original state. It winds across Kazakhstan for just over half of its 2,534-kilometre length.

Many of Kazakhstan's rivers are characterized by strong changes in water volume; after snowmelt in the highlands and rare rainfall they can flow in full spate, but at other times they can only be recognized by their dried-up beds. Dry riverbeds, the longest of which are the Shu (Chuy in Kyrgyz, Chu in Russian), the Torgay and the Surysu, are shown as dotted blue lines on maps.

Perhaps the greatest challenge thus confronting Kazakhstan's leaders in the first decade of the twenty-first century was the full mobilisation of the talents of its diverse peoples in the cause of exploiting the country's truly enormous land, water and mineral resources. Unlike most countries in the post-Rio, post-Johannesburg era, Kazakhstan is not confronted with the impasse of scarce resources: quite the opposite is true.