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Kazakhstan's natural wonders under threat

  • Story Highlights
  • Lake Balkhash basin includes the second largest lake in Central Asia
  • Balkhash supplies much of the country's water needs
  • Ecosystem under threat from cyanide used in gold mining and heavy metals
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By Rebecca Beardmore
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CNN Traveller

(CNN Traveller) -- It is a baking hot Saturday in southeast Kazakhstan, and I have joined a group of scientists, diplomats, businessmen and a ballerina aboard a Russian-built, nine-seater four-wheel-drive van to escape the city of Almaty and its mountainous backdrop.

Kazakh children play by a river near Almaty, once the former Soviet country's capital.

We are heading for the calm waters, warm breezes and scorching sand of the Kapchagay reservoir. When we arrive, we set up camp on one of the quieter beaches, away from the shrieks of banana-boat riders, paddling children and weekend revelers occupying the most favored spots. Soon, we are joined by a solitary family, which takes up position at a comfortable distance. Relaxing in the sunshine, we all watch lazily as an ancient dinghy pushes off into the water from a distant bank.

The waves breaking gently on the dinghy and its occupant come from the Ili river, dammed 100km distant by the Soviet-era Kapchagay hydroelectric station. The Ili rises in the Xinjiang region of China, before eventually feeding into Lake Balkhash and being sidelined by the dam to create the Kapchagay reservoir.

Most of the jet-skiers, swimmers and picnickers are unaware, however, that while the reservoir may be tranquil, it represents one of the biggest challenges of environmental management that Kazakhstan faces today.

The Lake Balkhash basin includes the second largest lake in Central Asia after the Aral Sea and is home to one fifth of Kazakhstan's population. The lake's water supplies much of the country's agriculture, industry, hydroelectric generators, fisheries and homes, but its whole ecosystem is under threat. Cyanide, used in gold mining, and heavy metals from industrial agriculture have both entered the water. Additionally, the building of the Kapchagay dam has led to a fall in the surface area of Lake Balkhash from over 21,000km sq in 1961 to just 17,000km sq in 1999.

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"The situation at Lake Balkhash is very bad," says Mels Eleusizov, head of NGO Tabigat, and leader of Kazakhstan's green party that bears the same name. "If not managed correctly, it will be a new Aral Sea disaster for Kazakhstan." That episode -- which saw the sea lose over 80 per cent of its volume after the Soviet Union diverted two of its tributaries -- is something the country cannot afford to repeat.

To highlight the importance of the Ili river, Tabigat holds an annual summer regatta. Participants can sail, float and paddle in all manner of craft from the Chinese border to Lake Balkhash in a series of stages. As well as being great fun, it has proved an excellent way to engage the interest of both locals and tourists alike in the environmental issues faced by Kazakhstan today.

The waters of the Ili also flow past another much-visited site, one whose wider implications are also seldom contemplated by its visitors.

Rising above an ancient river terrace, sheer, sunburned-brown cliffs provide a dramatic contrast to the glittering blue-green waterway. Beneath these cliffs, below the antics of the local rock-climbing club, sit the huge slabs of rock known as Tamgaly-Tas.

Here, amid engravings in Tibetan, Manchu and Dzungar script, are the huge images of three Buddhas, one Bodhisattva (an image of the pre-enlightened Buddha) and one Nagarjuna (an Indian philosopher, often regarded as 'the second Buddha'). They are believed to have been carved on to the smooth, weathered rock by the Oirat-Dzungar people -- a nomadic Mongol tribe -- sometime after their conversion to Buddhism in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

"Tamgaly-Tas is a very important monument," says Almaty-based historian and researcher Renato Sala. "This was once an important river crossing on the Silk Road. These images indicate the western border of the spread of Buddhism into this region at the time. It's also the most significant Buddhist site in Central Asia."

Beautiful and historic Tamgaly-Tas may be, but it is also indicative of new-found pressures on the treasures of the region. The post-Soviet period in Kazakhstan has seen a huge rise in the number of privately owned cars, meaning more and more people are roaming further in search of things to see and do.

Tamgaly-Tas's new-found popularity has brought with it an enormous amount of litter, as well as a flurry of carved and spray-painted additions to the rock faces, many directly over the ancient artworks themselves.

Both Eleusizov and Sala agree that control of tourist sites in Kazakhstan is very weak, and that there is a need for greater regulation. "We need to study the culture of tourism in arid zones such as these," says Eleusizov. "The state needs to regulate internal tourism and we need it to pass laws relating to the environment and the impact of visitors."

Of course, here lies the dilemma: the site needs management to protect its natural beauty, however, by managing that beauty, something of the character will be lost. For his part, Sala has, over the past few years, organized clean-up days at Tamgaly-Tas, enlisting the support of Almaty residents.

A longer-term answer may lie in another rock-art site, the similar-sounding Tamgaly in the Chu-Ili mountain range. Also within reach of Almaty, this valley is one of thousands of rock art sites to be found in Central Asia, its shiny, weathered rock surfaces reflecting the sun with a mirror-like brilliance. Many of the rock carvings here are thought to date back 3,000 years, and include mysterious anthropomorphic 'sun head' figures. As well as the rock art, Tamgaly also has a Bronze Age cemetery and settlement complex.

What makes Tamgaly unique among Kazakhstan's rock art sites, however, is its inclusion on Unesco's World Heritage List. As part of the management of the site, local guides are always present to greet and direct tourists and to deter any unwanted behavior. Paths between the carved rock faces are clearly but unobtrusively marked, and rubbish bins and toilets are provided in the car park.

The archaeologist responsible for Tamgaly's management plan is Alexey Rogozhinsky. He is cautiously optimistic about the success of the World Heritage inscription: "It works, more or less. It is a Kazakhstani type of management, not exactly as in the plan, but more or less, it works."

Lack of funding for guides and maintenance is a constant worry, he adds, but there are hopes that 2008 will see renewed cooperation with Unesco throughout Central Asia. The use of training forums and development of the Central Asian Rock Art Database (Carad) will lead to sites such as Tamgaly-Tas being provided with greater protection -- and more concrete plans for their long-term management as tourist attractions.

With increases in both internal and international tourism, Kazakhstan is faced with a set of challenges to manage its natural and cultural heritage effectively. The success stories on every scale, from the global to the local, have a theme: cooperation. Active participation in maintaining and respecting these popular destinations is needed from both local and foreign visitors alike.

Back on the beach at Kapchagay, the figure in the dinghy, now identifiable as a teenage boy, struggles with inadequate oars as he makes a labored journey towards the shore. Slowly, he pulls towards us. At last, he is close enough to talk without raising his voice. He lies back, pops a cigarette into his mouth as though dismissing the difficulties of his journey with a single gesture, and grins at us: 'Do you have a light?'

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