09/28/2005, 00.00
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Chinese river diversion project threatening Kazakhstan's Lake Balkhash

Chinese plans to divert a river that flows into the lake come under scrutiny. Scientists fear the lake might disappear in just a few years.  Should this happen several nations would suffer a major environmental disaster.

Almaty (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Scientists fear that Lake Balkhash might disappear should water levels drop s a result of diversion projects, including those of China which plans to increase its water outtake.

The lake, the fourth largest in Central Asia, situated north-west of Kazakhstan's capital of Almaty, is the lifeblood of this arid region. It supports industry, agriculture and a population of three million people. But water levels have dramatically dropped in the last few years.

Some of this drop may be natural. Some scientists point out that the lake does have a natural cycle which accounts for much of that rise and fall. But the biggest threats are man-made.

The lake's main source is the Ili River—already depleted by a reservoir created upstream and heavy agricultural use—which flows from China. Chinese authorities intend to divert most of its waters to better use them. But scientists warn this might sound the death knell for the lake.

According to Natalia Vorobeova, a biological scientist and government adviser, the future of the lake could bring an even greater environmental crisis than the drying up of the Aral Sea—now acknowledged as one of the world's worst ecological disasters.

If China did divert the waters of the River Ili, she said, the whole climate in the Balkhash region would be affected. In fact, she expects "[t]here'll be more desert. It will be just the same as around Aral. And Aral was less populated than here. This is a very populated area. Emigration will start, people will move. It will be a catastrophe."

And for environmental campaigner Mels Eleusizov, if steps are not taken to protect the lake's future, the consequences will be felt far beyond the Balkhash region and touch Kazakhstan itself. And so the country will lose "its national treasure".

According to scientists, unless action is taken quickly, all of it could disappear in as little as a decade.

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