Crossroads Asia | Environment | Central Asia

What Is China’s Role in Central Asia’s Changing Climate?

As climate change hits Central Asia, China needs to be a team player regarding water.

What Is China’s Role in Central Asia’s Changing Climate?
Credit: Depositphotos

New English-language academic publications highlight the necessity for more research to understand the effects of climate change across Central Asia. One key extra-regional actor to monitor is China. Development projects in Xinjiang put water flows toward the country’s Central Asian neighbors at risk as droughts and extreme temperatures, exacerbated by climate change, have made every drop of water vital.

The Future of Lake Balkhash Is in Beijing

As the Chinese government continues the development of Xinjiang, which includes the well-documented repression of Uyghurs and other groups, water is vital for Beijing’s plans. One water body that crosses international boundaries is the Ili River, which begins in the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang and crosses into Kazakhstan, discharging into Lake Balkhash, eastern Kazakhstan’s largest lake.

A 2021 article in the academic journal Water, titled “Evaluating Vulnerability of Central Asian Water Resources under Uncertain Climate and Development Conditions: The Case of the Ili-Balkhash Basin,” discusses the present future of the river and the lake. The Ili River supplies “70-80% of annual inflows to Lake Balkhash, currently the largest endorheic freshwater lake… in Central Asia,” the essay explains.

One problem is a lack of information to understand Beijing’s plans for Xinjiang. “Estimates suggest that agriculture consumes 90% of water in the basin;” however, the true extent of agricultural land use in the Chinese Ili Basin is “limited and [could vary] significantly due [to] access restrictions and data limitations.” Looking forward, “if the hydro-climatic regime of the Ili for 2020–2060 remains unchanged compared to the past 50 years, and agriculture continues to expand in China, future water supplies will become increasingly strained,” the authors predict. 

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In other words, a lack of transparency regarding Beijing’s plans complicates understanding the Ili-Balkhash Basin’s present and future. Occasional reports about this topic list some of the water-demanding projects Beijing is carrying out along the Ili, like hydropower plants, water reservoirs, irrigation projects for agriculture, and a rise in water consumption in Xinjiang due to population growth. What we do know about Beijing’s ongoing projects does not bode well for Lake Balkhash, the Kazakhstani people, and the ecosystem that depends on it. One-fifth of the population of Kazakhstan lives in the Ili-Balkhash Basin, 50 percent of which are rural residents, according to the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting.

Due to destructive Soviet-era irrigation policies, the Central Asian nation already knows what it’s like to lose one body of water: the Aral Sea. The same situation must not occur again in Lake Balkhash, which would be the worst-case scenario. According to some reports, the shallowing of Lake Balkhash is already noticeable.

Cooperation Is Mandatory

A press release issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 24 discussed a meeting of the High-level Dialogue on Global Development, which was held on the margins of the 14th BRICS Summit. The statement praised Beijing’s commitment to a greener, more sustainable future, noting that Chinese authorities aim to finance unspecific projects on “development, climate change and green development” and carry out “green and sustainable development of agriculture and rural areas.” However, the press release did not use the words “water” or “river.”

It is unclear to what extent the Kazakhstani government has convinced their Chinese counterparts to revisit some of their development plans in Xinjiang to limit water-flow alterations to the Ili River. The Irtysh River, which crosses China, Kazakhstan, and Russia, could also become another focal point for a crisis in the future since “there are no concrete decisions [about water sharing] yet,” political scientist Zamir Karazhanov argues.

Bilateral agreements have been signed over transboundary water resources, and there are meetings to discuss these issues. However, China does have a history of utilizing the “national sovereignty” and “domestic affairs” cards when criticized by governments that do not support its controversial projects. A 2021 essay published by Water International, aptly titled “Sino-Kazakhstan transboundary water allocation cooperation study: analysis of willingness and policy implementation,” discusses why the two governments have not managed to increase cooperation over transboundary water issues.

In 2013, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi stressed, “if we talk about the transboundary waters, China is not doing anything to the detriment of the interests of Kazakhstan.” However, the truth appears to be different. “Beijing refuses to conclude any binding international agreement on the sharing of water, whether in the headwaters of the Mekong, the Brahmaputra or the Irtysh. This also applies to the Ili River,” argued a 2020 Central Asian Analytical Network commentary.

It is worth noting that Kazakhstan experienced a particularly severe drought in 2021 – temperatures reached 46.5 degrees Celsius (115.7 Fahrenheit) on July 7 – while other regional countries experienced very high temperatures as well. I have not found any announcement that Beijing is willing to re-discuss water-related projects in Xinjiang to assist Kazakhstan when, not if, the next drought occurs.

Climate Change and Central Asia: More Research Is Needed

The future of climate change in Central Asia is a topic that requires more analysis by English-speaking academics, argues an essay titled “A void in Central Asia research: climate change,” published in May by Central Asia Survey. After exhaustive research, the authors concluded that “nothing was published on climate change in Central Asia between 1991 and 1995” out of 292 English-language publications reviewed. More recently, “there was a spike in interest in Central Asia in the natural sciences in 2013. As for the social sciences, scholarly interest appears to have peaked or plateaued in 2015.” A decline has occurred since that year.

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The authors also argue that “the very same scholars who over-securitized Central Asia, have ignored the looming and real security threats that climate change poses to the region.” Thus, an alarming knowledge gap exists about how “climate change has been influencing security and relations among the states in Central Asia.”

On July 5, George Washington University’s Central Asia Program organized a webinar about the aforementioned essay with co-author Research Professor Indra Overland. Overland argued that additional research about climate change in Central Asia is necessary as temperatures in the region are “rising faster than the world average,” and “tensions over water may grow at intra- and inter-state levels,” in addition to under-researched problems like environment-related migration.

Central Asia’s “water wars” have generally been well-documented but with a focus on security rather than climate concerns. In the spring of 2021, clashes between citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan resulted in dozens killed and tens of thousands displaced. The border conflict commenced “over a water intake station on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border near Kok-Tash in Batken province.” While the dispute has historical roots over an unsettled border, as The Diplomat explained at the time, water’s role in the conflict is undeniable. On the other hand, cooperation over water resources between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan appears to be improving. Central Asian governments must cooperate more over transboundary water issues and improve  wasteful domestic water infrastructure.

As water demand will inevitably increase in China in the foreseeable future for human consumption, energy, and agricultural projects, the future of the Ili River, and consequently Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash, appears grim, given the apparent lack of cooperation over transnational water issues. Given this potentially hazardous and tragic scenario, additional research on water issues and climate change is mandatory for academics, analysts, and policymakers to understand Central Asia’s present and future.