Wednesday, 21 November 2001

LAKE ISSYK-KUL IS UNDER THREAT

Published in Field Reports

By Maria Utyaganova, student, International Relations Department, American University in Kyrgyzstan, Bi (11/21/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Kyrgyzstan’s famed Issyk-kul lake is in danger. Its water level is sinking by an average of 5 centimeters a year. The melting of glaciers is identified as the main cause of this development.

Kyrgyzstan’s famed Issyk-kul lake is in danger. Its water level is sinking by an average of 5 centimeters a year. The melting of glaciers is identified as the main cause of this development. The lake may eventually sink by two to three meters, and grave consequences would follow for wildlife in the region.

One of the first sightseeing places in Kyrgyzstan foreigners are recommended to go to is Lake Issyk-kul. The world’s second largest mountain lake, situated on 1690 meters above sea level, Issyk-Kul is often called the ‘blue pearl’ of Kyrgyzstan. With a size of 6200 square meters and a picturesque view of mountains, clean and warm waters, and fresh air, the lake has always been a source of national pride. People not only from Central Asian republics but from all over the CIS countries come to enjoy Issyk-kul.

Everything seems perfect until one pays attention to an interesting fact. There are some places where diving platforms are situated several meters away from the actual lake. It is striking to observe how much the water level has gone down. The fact of lake’s shrinking has not remained unobserved. Seminars and conferences are being organized to figure out the causes and find the solution to the problem. At a seminar on Hydro-ecological problems and sustainable development of Central Asia, held earlier this year, scientists identified several reasons responsible for the decrease in water level. Specialists point out that the melting of glaciers caused by global warming, as well as human activity, the Aral Sea disaster, desertification, and dust storms are factors contributing to the deterioration of the ecological situation in the Issyk-kul region.

In November of this year, the European Economic Commission has started work on a project called "Assessment and forecasting of the ecological situation in the Issyk-kul region". The project gathered scientists from nine countries for a detailed study of the lake’s condition, forecasting on future scenarios, and working out the measures for preventing unfavorable developments.

D. Mamatkanov, director of the institute on water problems and hydro-energy, told Information Agency Akipress that the average annual decrease in Issyk-kul Lake is 5 to 6 centimeters. He warned that if no urgent measures are undertaken it is quite possible that in the near future many vacationing areas and beaches will be lost. Mr. Mamatkanov said that experts explain Issyk-kul’s shrinking by rapid melting of the mountain glaciers. According to the estimates, the size of the high mountain glaciers is now a third smaller than twenty years ago.

The project’s participants believe that human activity is the primary reason for such a rapid decrease in mountain ice. Specialists point to the work of the Kyrgyz-Canadian gold extraction company ‘Kumtor’ as one of the main reasons of ecological decline. Situated 3500 meters high in the mountains, the company generates wastes that easily reach the high peaks of the glaciers. Dust spreading all over the glaciers dims them, and thus accelerates their melting.

Experts are very anxious about the risks associated with the water level decrease. If the situation is left unchecked, it is expected that the water level will eventually drop by two or three meters, and that the temperature will become several degrees colder. As a consequence there may be great losses in the animal and plant diversity of the lake.

"I want to believe that the most dangerous forecasts will not come true. Nature possesses great power of neutralization against ruthless human activity", according to the director of the institute on water problems and hydro energetic. Warnings about the threats that the gold industry poses to Issyk-kul are not new. Yet no action was taken to prevent the situation from deteriorating. The government is confronted with the dilemma, in which two interests conflict. One is that the republican budget receives significant tax money from the Kumtor gold industry; another is that the local population is very much dependent on tourism in Issyk-kul, which is expected to become a big tourism resource.

Issyk-kul is Kyrgyz for "warm lake", however with present course of events it is doubtful whether such a name will be a proper word to refer to the lake in the future. Hopefully, the authorities have learned lessons from other examples of negligent attitude towards nature and Issyk-kul will not have the same destiny as other vanished lakes in Central Asia.

Maria Utyaganova, student, International Relations Department, American University in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.

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