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«Transfer» of water to China

Fig. 1. Potential route for water transfer from Altai Region to the XUAR

Head of the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, Alexander Tkachev, at a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Han Changfu in early May, has announced readiness of the Russian Federation to offer a project for a delivery of fresh water from its territory to dry areas of China. «We are ready to propose a project for the transfer of fresh water from Altai Region of Russia through the Republic of Kazakhstan to the arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China», TASS quotes Tkachev. Tkachev’s proposal raises many questions and criticism from environmental organizations, including WWF.

Director for Environmental Policy of WWF Russia Dr. of Geological Sc. Eugene Schwartz suggests paying attention to the features of potential route of fresh water transfer. The waters of river Ob in Altai Region are separated from the arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China… by river Irtysh on the territory of Kazakhstan (see map, Fig. 1). This is the same Irtysh upstream from which China takes ever larger volumes of water to irrigate XUAR, and refuses to discuss consequences of this with Russia and Kazakhstan in trilateral format.

As it is noted by Eugene Schwartz, the negotiating positions of Russia and Kazakhstan to ensure environmental flow of water in Black Irtysh discussed with China should be strictly coordinated. Otherwise, in response to a proposal to pay for the construction of a water channel to XUAR and the water supply fee, China will simply increase water intake from the Black Irtysh (and, probably Arguni) in China. Despite some progress in the negotiations between Kazakhstan and China in 2015, when the date for signing the bilateral Chinese-Kazakh agreement has been decided, it has not yet been signed due to unpreparedness of the China part side. In particular, the definition of the concept of «environmental flow» is not agreed, which in theory should be included in the text of the document. It should also be noted that China (unlike Russia and Kazakhstan) did not sign the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki, 1992).

Russia is already losing about 2 billion cubic meters of water per year as a result of increased water uptake in China. In turn, because of the PRC, Kazakhstan was forced to increase water uptake. Consequently, China and Kazakhstan are already taking water from the upper stream of Irtysh, that is, from the basin of river Ob.

Virtually all possible options for channel routs lay either through fairly high ridges or cross Irtysh. All of them are longer than 700 kilometers, and in addition to this the end of the potential water channel route is half a kilometer higher than the start, which will of course result in significant costs for pumping water.

A number of well-known independent specialists, including Corresponding Member of Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of the Institute of Water Problems of Russian Academy of Sciences, v. Danilov-Danilyan, and Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Natural Resources, Nature Management and Ecology v. I. Kashin, publicly testified that the idea is surprising in terms of its economic, ecological and hydrotechnical plan. The fact that «such project, first of all, requires strategic environmental assessment of impacts and possible negative consequences for the environment, water and near-water ecosystems», has been stated by Oksana Nikitina, coordinator of projects for the conservation of freshwater ecosystems and sustainable hydropower of WWF Russia.
«It is necessary to determine the regime of environmental flow required to maintain sustainable operation of the river system. The notion that a flood flow or high water run is „extra flush“ or „excess water“ is fundamentally wrong». O. Nikitina has pointed out that «spring high water is the most important phase of water regime, which determines flooding of valuable floodplain areas and habitats of living organisms and their supply with nutrients».

Dangerous water games

Improvisation of the Ministry of Agriculture is not harmless. China has recently declared itself as the creator of New Silk Road — an integrator of Eurasia. Among the many tasks to be solved by this initiative in the region is pushing out on to operational space of huge construction corporations, which are no longer needed in China. In the articles of Chinese geographers about water supply of Xinjiang, published in scientific blogs a year before the meeting of the two agricultural administrators, it has been noted: «If you transfer some of Ob’s flow into Irtysh (which is not 700, but the first hundred kilometers along the plain from the end of the Kulunda Canal) then it will be possible to additionally uptake larger volumes of water from higher streams of Black Irtysh for China to provide for central and southern areas of XUAR… This scheme is technically simple, at a costs comparable to currently constructed channel South-North-Central and, in principle, is similar to „The scheme for the transfer of Siberian rivers to Central Asia“, proposed in the Soviet era».

China can creatively take hold of the «A. N. Tkachev channel» for varous reasons: take give megaproject work to its large construction companies, provide cheap water to Xinjiang by larger uptake of Black Irtysh water in China, and gain greater control over the water systems of Kazakhstan and Russia, already «hobbled» by the threat of growing water uptake in upper reaches of Irtysh. It is obvious that «water games» will not come to any good.

There is no «excess» of water in Altai, there are abandoned amelioratory systems that could be repaired and used to produce goods that China is increasingly importing. Therefore, instead of various ill-conceived, according to ecologists, initiatives the Ministry of Agriculture should take think about how produce end products with added value in Russia with the help of abundant land and water, which will be bought by both foreign and domestic consumers. And it was not without a reason that on the next day after the bold statement A. N. Tkachev has disavowed it: «Consideration of the issue of supplying China with fresh water is possible only on condition of unreserved observance of Russia’s interests, including from environmental point of view. In the short term, this project is not planned for implementation».