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Water resources

Water resources are formed by perennial and ephemeral rivers, brooks and springs, freshwater and brackish lakes, including the world’s second largest high-mountain lake Issyk-Kul.

Kyrgyzstan may be divided into two hydrological zones: (i) the flow generation zone (mountains), covering 171 800 km2, or 87 percent of the territory, (ii) the flow dissipation zone of 26 700 km2, which is 13 percent of the territory. Most rivers are fed by glaciers and/or snow melt. Peak flows occur from April to July, with 80–90 percent of the flow in about 120–180 days extending into August or September.

There are six main river basin groups (Table 3). No rivers flow into Kyrgyzstan. The river basins, listing the largest first and progressing to the smallest area are:

  • Syr Darya river basin covers 55.3 percent of the country: In Kyrgyzstan the river is called the Naryn river before it reaches the Fergana valley. It then flows into Uzbekistan as the Syr Darya river, then into Tajikistan and then again into Uzbekistan where it receives the Chatkal river, a tributary that also rises in Kyrgyzstan. It then flows towards Kazakhstan.
  • Chu, Talas and Assa river basins, cover 21.1 percent of the country: All three rivers flow to Kazakhstan, where the portion that is not withdrawn is lost in the desert.
  • Southeastern river basins cover 12.9 percent of the country: These are different river basins that drain into the Tarim basin, China. The main rivers are the Aksu (Sary Dzhaz), Aksay (Toshkan) and Kek Suu, and are located at high elevations.
  • Lake Issyk-Kul internal and interior basin, cover 6.5 percent of the country: The lake has low salinity. The estimated flow from all rivers into the Issyk-Kul lake basin that does not evaporate is used for irrigation or municipalities. The lake and the surrounding rivers that drain into the lake are all within Kyrgyzstan.
  • Amu Darya river basin covers 3.9 percent of the country: The Amu Darya river rises mainly in Tajikistan, but receives a contribution from the Kyzyl Suu tributary, which originates in the southwest of Kyrgyzstan.
  • Lake Balkhash basin covers 0.3 percent of the country: The Karkyra river, which rises in Kyrgyzstan is a small tributary of the Ili river and flows to lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan.

The average natural surface water flow is an estimated 46.46 km3/year, all internally produced. The inflow from China from the rivers on the west slope of the Barluke mountain is an estimated 0.558 km3/year. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) allocated a portion of these water resources to the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, with the rest going to the neighbouring Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik Soviet Socialist Republics. This rule only referred to water flows within the USSR (36.09 km3/year) and did not concern resources generated in the southeastern basins (5.36 km3/year), since they flow towards China, lake Issyk-Kul basin (4.65 km3/year), which is an endorheic basin located entirely in Kyrgyzstan, and the very limited resources generated in the Balkhash lake basin (0.36 km3/year). This allocation was re-endorsed by the five new states of Central Asia, until the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination can propose a new strategy for water sharing in the Aral Sea basin. Surface water resources allocated to Kyrgyzstan are calculated every year, depending on existing flows. On average, however, surface water represents a volume of 10.22 km3/year out of the total 36.09 km3/year. Adding the 5.36 km3/year of the southeastern basin, the 4.65 km3/year for lake Issyk-Kul basin and the 0.36 km3/year of lake Balkhash basin area, and the inflow of the west slopes of Barluke mountain (0.558 km3/year), gives a total of 21.148 km3/year of actual renewable surface water resources (RSWR) (Table 3).

Annual renewable groundwater resources are an estimated 13.69 km3/year, of which about 11.22 km3/year is common to surface water resources (Table 4). In 1991, the groundwater resources, for which abstraction equipment existed, was an estimated 3.39 km3/year, mainly in the Chu river basin (2.02 km3/year), the Syr Darya river basin (0.73 km3/year) and the lake Issyk-Kul basin (0.52 km3/year).

Total internal renewable water resources are thus equal to 48.93 km3/year (Table 4) and total actual renewable water resources equal to 23.62 km3/year (Table 5), which is equal to actual renewable surface water resources (21.15) plus groundwater resources (13.69) minus the overlap between surface water and groundwater (11.22) (Table 3 and Table 4).

In 2005, produced and treated wastewater accounted for 144 and 142 million m3 respectively.

In 1994, 1 720 million m3/year of agricultural drainage water was collected in the collector-drainage canals, and about 380 million m3/year of municipal and industrial untreated wastewater, for a total of 2 100 million m3/year, of which 30 percent in the Chu river basin and 70 percent in the Syr Darya river basin. Of this total, about 1 800 million m3/year returned to the rivers (300 million m3/year in the Chu river and 1 500 million m3/year in the Syr Darya river), which could be reused by downstream countries. Of the remaining 300 million m3/year, direct use of treated wastewater accounted for 0.14 million m3, while 299.86 million m3/year was directly used for irrigation, after natural desalting treatment (phytomelioration).

Water in most rivers comes from glaciers and snow, and low and unreliable flows are often the rule in August and September, in the latter part of the growing season. Regulation of these flows is required to ensure adequate water supplies are available over the entire cropping period.

In 1995, total dam capacity was an estimated 23 500 million m3. There were nine reservoirs in the Syr Darya river basin with a total capacity of 22 300 million m3, six in the Chu river basin with a total capacity of 600 million m3, and three in the Talas river basin with a total capacity of 600 million m3. The Toktogul dam, with a reservoir capacity of 19 500 million m3, is on the Naryn (Syr Darya) river. This multipurpose dam is used for irrigation, hydropower production, flood protection and regulation. However, because of its location near the border with downstream Uzbekistan, it does not play an important role in the irrigation of areas within Kyrgyzstan. The same applies to the Kirov dam, which has a capacity of 550 million m3 and is located on the Talas river near the border with downstream Kazakhstan. Twelve of the reservoirs are only used for irrigation, each of which has a capacity of more than 10 million m3 (Table 6).

In 1985, gross theoretical hydropower potential was an estimated 162 500 GWh/year, and the economically feasible potential an estimated 55 000 GWh/year. Hydropower installed capacity is about 3 GW, a number of hydropower plants are part of the Naryn-Syr Darya cascade, controlled by the Toktogul dam. Hydropower plays a key role in Kyrgyzstan and is the country’s main source of energy (about 90 percent of electricity generation in 1995), given its limited gas, oil and coal resources. However, hydropower production mainly releases water in winter, while downstream countries need water for the summer cropping season. At the regional level, competition between irrigation and hydropower appears to be a major issue. An agreement was reached with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1996. These two countries transfer energy, coal or gas to Kyrgyzstan in the period of power deficit, to compensate Kyrgyzstan for not releasing water for hydropower in winter.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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