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The Ili-Balkhash Basin is part of / comprises: · Asia & Pacific · Central Asia · Europe & CIS ·
Countries sharing the Ili-Balkhash Basin: · China · Kazakhstan ·

Facts & Figures edit
Catchment AreaA 512,025 km3
Neighbouring BasinsA
Population DensityA 11 /km2
DischargeA km3/yr
Surface Area m3
Average Depth m
Water Volume m2
Water Stress m3/person/year
Average Precipitation mm/yr
Evaporation mm/yr
Runoff mm/yr
Land Use
Irrigated Area km2
Irrigable Area km2
No. of DamsA
Dam Density dams/km2
Total Water Withdrawals km3
  For Agricultural Use
  For Domestic Use
  For Industrial Use
Renewable Water Available (m3/yr/pers)
References & Remarks
A Transboundary Freshwater Spatial Database, Oregon University



Water Basin Profile: Physical and Hydrological Characteristics

The Balkhash-lake and Ili-river basin (Ili-Balkhash basin – IBB), located in the south-east of Kazakhstan and north-west of China, form the viewpoint of hydrology and biodiversity is considered to be a unique water region and is the largest lake ecosystem on the planet. It has a large territory - 413 thousand In its area Balkhash Lake is the third of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (17,1 тыс. км2), supplied by the Ili-river waters, originating in China. The Lake, divided into two sections by a narrow channel, is freshwater in its western section and saline in the east. In the IBB region there are over 45 thousand rivers, different temporary water flows and dells with a total length of 118 thousand km., and 24 thousand small lakes and artificial reservoirs. The 5th part of Kazakhstan population (3.3 million inhabitants) lives in the Ili-Balkhash basin, mainly, in Almaty, the largest city of the Republic and former capital of the Kazakhstan[1].

Water Basin Profile: Socio-Economic and Environmental Issues

Despite its large area, Balkhash Lake is surprisingly shallow, which results in its extreme vulnerability and fragility. Intensive economic activity, including change of the hydrological mode, has severely degraded the natural mode of basin ecosystems. As a result, the lake level has decreased and Coastal zones have degraded. The surface area has decreased from 21,400 km3in 1961 to 17.070 km3 in 1999. Counter-current flows from the western lake section to the eastern one have decreased. This caused increased water salinity in the Balkhash-city vicinities (salt content has grown from 1.5 to 2.3 g/l). Due to the planned and complicated system of management of a multi-sector activity on the lake territory, no activities are carried out to save and involve additional water resources; the energy sector is not being developed. Despite its powerful potential in the field of hydro- and heat-and-power engineering development, the region lacks its own energy, it being supplied from outer sources at a high price. In spite of large investments, the irrigated areas have been cut twice for the last 10 years. This also refers to pastures, as a result of waterflooding the sheep population has been reduced 3-fold.

The IBB is linked to the water basin of China (north-west of Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region). Stability of water balance in the basin depends on the volume of water supplied from the Chinese territory. It is worth noting that lately water losses in the Chinese section of the basin have been growing, thus, the threat of increased water diversion on the part of China is a specific factor for the basin. According to experts, intake of 10-15% of river water may bring to shallowing and salinization of Balkhash and result in a natural cataclysm, like the Aral one, involving serious social and economic consequences.

Water Basin Profile: Transboundary Political and Institutional Setting

The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan approved the National Action Plan for Environment Preservation as one of the priorities for Sustainable Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan (NAPEP/SD RK), comprising a subsection for Improvement of water resources management in the Balkhash-Alakol river basin (1998). November 2000 saw the Balkhash-2000 Public Forum where the situation in the Ili-Blakhash basin was regarded as extremely critical.

The Forum made a decision to establish an intersectoral Coordination Council for IBB sustainable development under the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, involving local authorities, business, community, independent experts and CAREC. The Forum recommended initiating development of a long-term IBB sustainable development programme.

As ordered by the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in 2001 CA-REC developed the IBB Sustainable Development Concept, which consequently was supported by the Ministries and Environmental Committee of the Parliament of Kazakhstan. Specialists from many institutes and departments, experienced in various environment-related fields, were involved in the Concept development. Materials and works of various academic and sectoral institutes and organizations were used in the Concept development process.

Read more on the CA-REC/EC project "Development of Ili-Balkhash Basin Integrated Management Plan"

Joint Bodies

The Joint Russian Federation-Kazakhstan Commission acts on the basis of the Agreement of 1992 and covers the rivers Irtysh, Ishim, Tobol, Ural, Bolshoy Uzen’ and Maliy Uzen’.

The Kazakhstan-China Joint Commission acts on the basis of Agreement of 2001 and covers Irtysh and Ili rivers, as well as streams and small rivers.

The Joint Russian Federation-China Commission is established by Agreement of 2008.

Major challenges and perspectives of Cooperation

The Joint Russian Federation-Kazakhstan Commission has a working group for each river. There are suggestions to organize working groups in accordance with their functions (monitoring, flood passage, protection of waters and liquidation of environmental accidents, transboundary protected areas and the protection of biodiversity). There are also proposals to involve in the work of the commission large water users and the public. There is a need for wider distribution of information, since the Protocols and annual reports of the commission are not published in mass media.

The Kazakhstan-China Joint Commission has a narrow scope of activities (monitoring and joint research) and approaches the discussion of China’s water allocation projects very carefully.

There is ongoing work, in particular in Kazakhstan, to draft a new agreement between China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on the Integrated Management of Ili-Balkhash Basin

Water Basin Profile: Emerging Challenges and Opportunities for the Future

The major issues faced by the basin today may be identified as follows:

  • irrational water use, loss of biological resources, destruction of ecosystems;
  • desertification is a serious problem for the basin with a large territory of 140 thousand km2, currently classified as a desert;
  • continuous industrial pollution entails the problems, enhanced due to the unique basin hydrogeology;
  • agriculture, especially farming, results in polluted irrigation waters which also entails reduced crops;
  • with no long-term plan of development, the economic activity in the basin is not properly developed: despite substantial resources and favourable climate, the region shows one of the lowest level of income, high unemployment, poverty and sickness rate in the Republic.
  • The basin management and development is hindered by fragmentary division of the basin into 4 sections and departmental basin resources management by various agencies and Ministries.

Lack of common goals and long-term programme for the basin as well as necessary environmentally and socially-oriented investments, fragmentary distribution of authorities and responsibility among sectors make only some of the problems caused by the current management system. Various institutions bear responsibility and have control over the IBB condition and development, being a single natural complex, thus, there arise problems related to coordination of activities.


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  1. CA-REC background note for the Development of Ili-Balkhash Basin Integrated Management Plan project

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