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Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan: A Unique Lake
Lake Balkhash Information and Facts
Lake Balkhash, the third largest lake in Kazakhstan after the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, plays a significant role in preserving and managing the natural and climatic equity in Central Asia. In the last few years, however, this balance has become endangered because of the shrinking of the lake, many fearing that it will have a similar fate as the Aral Sea.
Geographic Elements and Surroundings
The lake is situated in the South-Eastern part of the country, and it belongs to an endorheic basin which is shared by Kazakhstan, China, with a small part belonging to Kyrgyzstan. It is the second largest lake in Central Asia and the 13th largest continental lake in the World.
Lake Balkash lies in the deepest part of the vast Balkhash-Alakol depression, bordered by semi-arid Kazak Uplands on the North, and the Saryesik-Atryan Desert on the South. It is also surrounded by Kazak hills in the North, the Beptak Dala on the West, the Chu-Ili Mountains, and the Taukum Sands on the South. This basin belongs to the larger, Dzungarian Alatau basin, which also contains Sassykkol, Alakol and Aibi lakes. Because of the rapid erosion of the Tian San Mountains, the depression is filled with various river and sand sediments.
Balkash is a lake with unique features, which have puzzled scientists and researchers for hundreds of years. Its rarity lies in the fact that its Western and Northern parts are nothing like each other. The Western area is a shallow and quiet expanse, filled with fresh water, containing 46% of the lake’s total volume. Its Eastern part is much deeper and considerably saltier. These two different sides are separated in the middle by the Saryesik Peninsula and the Uzynaral Strait.
The coastline also varies in different parts of the lake. The Western bank is higher (20-30 meters), and rocky, composed mainly of tuff, granite and limestone. The Southern shoreline is lower (only 1-2 meters high), and sandy. The whole shoreline is lumpy, with many bays: Guzkol, Kukuna, Karashigan on the East and Saryshagan, Kashkanteniz and Karakamys on the West. The Eastern shores are also rich with peninsulas: the Baygabyl, Balay and Shaukar peninsulas are all situated here. The Southern area is also low-lying, periodically flooded by the waters of Balkhash.
There are a total of 43 islands on Lake Balkhash, occupying 66 km2. These days, with the decrease of water levels, new islands have appeared on the lake. Basaral, Tasaral, Ortaaral, Ozynaral and Algazy lakes are some of the most important and largest islands of Balkhash.
Hydrology and Water Composition
The lake has seven main inflows, of which the larges is the Ili River, fed mainly by snowmelt and precipitation in the Chinese mountains in Xinjiang Province. The river forms a delta covering a surface area of 8,000 km2, giving home to rich plant and animal life. It is the largest natural delta in Central Asia, situated on an inland lake. It supports 10 inland wetland types, including streams, creeks, rivers, freshwater lakes, and the inland delta.
The Karatal, Aksu, and Lepsa rivers, as well as some underwater streams flow into the lake from the Eastern part. The lake’s surface area and volume vary because of the fluctuations of the water level. Balkhash has already shrunk 2,000 km2 since the beginning of the 20th century until the late ‘30s.
Water levels face a strong increase in the months of June and July, when melted snow comes in through the lake’s main inflows.
The semi-saline lake’s Western, fresh part is suitable for drinking and industrial purposes, whilst its Eastern waters have a high salinity of 3.5 g/L. The Western waters have a yellow-ish, gray tint color, while on the East the water is blue-ish towards emerald blue color.
The lake has no outlet, its water mainly evaporates.
Just like the lake’s shoreline and its waters, the climate of the area is also full of contrasts, with dry, hot summers and cold winters. The average annual precipitation is 430 mm. The average summer temperature is 30OC in July, while temperatures drop to -14OC in January. The relative humidity is around 60% and there are around 110-130 sunny days yearly. The lake is usually frozen between the months of November and April. The annual average temperature on the Western shore is 10OC, and 9OC on the Eastern precinct.
Wildlife in and Around the Lake
The lake’s coastline is made up mainly of individual willow trees and riparian forests. Among the most frequent plants one can encounter the common reed as well as several species of cane.
In the waters the Pytoplankyon are mainly represented by Algae. Until the 1970s the lake was very rich in biodiversity, being home to an abundance of shellfish and zooplankton, 20 different species of fish, more than 340 species of vertebrates and 120 bird species.
Of the many types of fish, there are 6 native, like the Balkhash Schizothorax and the Balkhash Perch. Carp, perch, asp, bream are also among popular, but non-native fish, whilst Sazan and Pike were frequently caught by fishermen.
Out of the 342 existing vertebrates in the lake area, 22 are considered endangered. There are also more than 120 species of birds living, breeding and nesting around Balkhash, among which we can enumerate the Cormorants, Marbled Teals, Pheasants, Golden Eagles and Great Egrets. The Dalmatian Pelican, the Great White Pelican and the Whooper Swan are three of 12 endangered bird species.
Although Lake Balkhash is a haven for various plant and animal species, the decrease in the water levels, local land development, the use of pesticides, deforestation and overgrazing have resulted in an unfortunate decline in biodiversity.
Humans, Cities, Energy
The largest city in the lake area is Balkhash, with a population of nearly 67,000. Amidst the lake basin, the major industrial activities are mining, ore processing and fishing. In the Northern precinct, a large copper deposit is under development, serving as another potential risk factor for the already troubled lake. The Western shores host military installations that have remained from the Soviet era. The Southern area is scarcely populated, with only a few villages breaking the pristine coastline.
The local economy in the 40’s and 50’s was mainly based on fishing, with 30 thousands of tons of fish being caught yearly in the 60’s, which was the peak. The numbers declined since then, mostly because of poaching, the interruption of reproduction programs, the decrease of water levels and quality.
The industrial developments along the lakeshores have further increased the pollution of Balkhash, by building Kapchagay Hydroelectric Plant on Ili River, which is also extensively used upstream, in China, for irrigation of the cotton cultivations. The increase in Xinjiang region’s population, the growth of its economy increased the demand for water in the area. The Balkhash Power Plant, although it provides electricity to a large number of inhabitants, it also has its downside by polluting the lake waters.
Navigation is also possible on Balkhash Lake, with regular ships navigating from one coastline to another; the main piers are Burlitobe and Burybaytal. The ships are mainly light, used primarily for fishing and transportation purposes. The yearly navigational period is 210 days on a waterway of 978 kms. Ships principally transport passengers, fish, livestock or diverse construction materials.
The lake’s current name is of Tatar, Kazakh and Southern Altai origins, meaning “tussocks in a swamp”. In the 8th century Balkhash was known as the place of the “Seven Rivers”, and as the place where nomadic groups such as Mongols and Turks intertwined with locals.
During China’s Qing dynasty, between 1644 and 1911, the lake formed the North-Westernmost border of the Chinese Empire. In 1864 the lake was handed over to the Russian Empire, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became part of Kazakhstan.
Starting from the 1970’s, there has been a considerable decrease in the lakes water levels. This process was mostly visible in the Western part, with the small lake Alakol vanishing between 1972 and 2001. The Southern part also lost nearly 150 km2 of water surface.
Out of the total 16 lake systems that could be found in the lake basin, only 5 exist today. Desertification in the area, in addition to the development of the industry, is also a serious issue, causing violent dust storms and increasing the salinity in the soil and the water.
The lake’s main inflows also bring in plenty of contaminated waters from China. In 2007 the Kazak government came in aid to this issue, trying to offer china price reduction for Kazak sales, in exchange for less water consumption on their side. Unfortunately, China declined the offer.
From a touristic point of view, the lake is pretty underdeveloped. There are, however, some lakeside resorts, since the place is popular among Kazakh and Russian holidaymakers.