The UN has warned that Lake Balkhash, the second largest lake in Central Asia after the Aral Sea, could dry up, creating another major environmental crisis in the region.
Lake Balkhash is already shrinking. (Image by Nasa)
Forty times the size of Lake Geneva, Balkhash lies in eastern Kazakhstan, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the commercial city of Almaty.
"We fear Lake Balkhash could meet a similar fate to the Aral Sea," the permanent representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kazakhstan, Fikret Akcura, said.
"Just like the Aral Sea, there is less and less water coming to the lake," he said when presenting a UNDP report on Kazakhstan's water resources.
The Kazakh newspaper Megapolis reported late last year that, according to the latest data, the lake has already shrunk by over 2,000 square kilometres (770 square miles).
The Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, has now turned into two separate water reservoirs surrounded by vast wastelands, as a result of Soviet policy to divert its two feeder rivers for cotton irrigation.
China key player
Kazakhstan must secure Beijing's cooperation to prevent the crisis, as Lake Balkhash gets the bulk of its water from the river Ili, flowing to Kazakhstan from north-western China.
"This is a very sensitive political issue," Zharas Takenov, the UNDP's environment team chief in Almaty, told Reuters.
"We lost the Aral Sea because we had several countries using the water. We have the same problem here. If there is no agreement with China on the amount of water it can use from the Ili, Balkhash will be damaged in the same way the Aral was."
"With the population growth curve, agriculture, industry and urbanisation in the western areas of China, there is of course going to be more water use on the Chinese side," Mr Akcura said.
To make things worse, the lake is already being intensively polluted by industrial waste and sewage.
Another source of concern, the UNDP report said, is a continuing misuse of water in Kazakhstan. Although the country's agricultural output has significantly declined since the early 1990s, farmers still use the same amount of water due to an artificially low price.
Meanwhile, about half Kazakhstan's population use water that is not up to international standards. The major reason for this, Mr Akcura said, was the increasing pollution of surface and underground waters.
The report also says the country has the lowest amount of clean drinking water available per person in the whole of the former Soviet Union.
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