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No. 6 (332) June 2018


A round-table was held on the 23rd July 2018 in Uralsk (Kazakhstan) to address the issues of transboundary water cooperation in the Ural (Zhaiyk) River Basin. This event was organized by the OSCE Programme Office in Astana in partnership with the Western Kazakhstan’s regional administration and the Public Fund Ecological Movement Zhaiyk-Ural. More than 100 representatives of government authorities, academia, civil society and expert community from Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation participated there.

The participants discussed problems related to changes in the hydro-ecological situation in the Ural-Caspian Basin and measures taken by the countries to overcome such problems. For example, a Russian-Kazakh agreement was signed for ecosystem conservation in the transboundary Ural basin during the Inter-regional cooperation forum in 2016. As participants noted, this agreement was made possible largely thanks to the efforts of the Kazakh-Russian historical-cultural and environmental expedition for the Ural River that initiated voyages along the river every summer to attract attention to river’s problems. The expedition started from Uralsk as early as in 1997, and enthusiasts from Russia joined its Kazakh partners a few years later. A group of like-minded people was formed and established communication among academia, state authorities and the public to strengthen friendly ties between Russia and Kazakhstan, attract attention to basin’s ecosystem protection, and promote a healthy lifestyle and patriotism. According to Deputy Chairman of Joint-Stock Company “Kazakhstanskaya Pravda”, public diplomacy seemed to be so effective in this case that it developed into or, figuratively, spilled over into the field of international relations.

Now the task is to transform the established informal communication into more formal cooperation as the Agreement 2016 sets. In particular, the agreement stipulated that a Russian-Kazakh commission was to be established for conservation of the transboundary Ural River’s ecosystem. However, this commission is still at its initial formation stage.

International experts – K.Stania (Head of the Austrian Delegations in water commissions, Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism) and D.Ziganshina (Deputy Director of SIC ICWC and member of Implementation committee, UNECE Water Convention) – were invited to share international best practices on interstate water commissions.

Mr. Stania presented the Austrian experience in establishing and functioning bi- and multilateral transboundary commissions (for Danube, Elbe, Neusiedler See, etc.). Interestingly, along with formal procedures, there are informal practices that facilitate coordinated work of countries. For example, Hungarian organizations provide (informal) hydrometerological services in some areas in Austria.

Ms. D.Ziganshina made a review of international experience in formation and functioning of joint bodies for water resources use and ecosystem protection to learn best practices and lessons that could be applied while forming a bilateral commission for the Ural ecosystem conservation. She noted that joint bodies should be established and developed based on the needs and potentials of a particular transboundary watercourse. There can be no a one-for-all model. However, experiences of various commissions allow us to note the following:

  • Ambitious tasks at the very beginning and an independent mandate yielded their fruits in more than a century-long activity of the US-Canada International Joint Commission;
  • Stage-by-stage empowerment was justified in case of the Congo Commission (its powers included from navigation to IWRM) and the Senegal Commission (water construction in 1972 to IWRM in 2002);
  • After 40 years of activity as a licensing authority, in 2019 the Finnish-Swedish Commission was turned into a commission for coordination and harmonization of work in the area of transboundary water cooperation, with the focus on the roles and broader involvement of local communities, municipalities, and business entrepreneurs;
  • The common scientific basis and basin organizations for Amudarya and Syrdarya have served as a foundation for successful work of ICWC in Central Asia in the early 90-s.

Reliable and permanent financing sources are prerequisite for success of a joint body. This aspect aroused the most interest of the audience. It was proposed to mobilize grants and special purpose funds, form an international fund for accumulation of money for work on conservation of the Ural, and look into the possibility of applying innovative mechanisms: transfer of funds collected for resource use and pollution to commission’s budget or use the example of the International Commission of Congo-Oubangui-Sangha (CICOS) financed through taxation regime of the regional integration organization of Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC).

A specific item in the agenda was devoted to surgeon conservation and augmentation in the Ural River. Surgeon population substantially decreased due to virtually legal poaching and destruction of surgeon fishing and protection system. Given that the reproduction capacity is still maintained, urgent and coordinated measures are required from both Russia and Kazakhstan. Academician A.Chibilyov and D.Ziganshina proposed studying and adopting a program for recovery of surgeon population in the Rhine River Basin that produced good results.

Many reporters underlined the importance of closer and systemic science and policy interaction in the field of resource use and conservation in the Ural River. Acad. A.Chibilyov expressed his concerns about unsystematic and irregular research in the Ural Basin. One should thoroughly think about scientific support of the joint commission (perhaps, in form of a scientific council for commission), and this is exactly scientific community which should initiate and compose conference agendas on the Ural River problems. Currently, unfortunately, conferences are called by state authorities or parliamentarians on stated by them lines of discussion in a very brief form as the reporter noted. D.Ziganshina, while presenting the experience of science mobilization in activities of river commissions, suggested considering the possibility of using the Institute of Steppe at the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences as “a scientific base” of the commission for the Ural ecosystem conservation. Experience of the Scientific-Information Center of ICWC on the base of SANIIRI Institute could serve an example of such approach.

Mr. M.Uteshkaliev (Director, Aktyubinsk branch of TOO “Kazakh research institute of forestry and land and forest reclamation”) and B.Alzhanova made interesting presentation on the status of floodplain forests in the Ural Basin. Their research results indicate to considerable degradation of floodplain bio-communities along the Ural River. A program needs to be developed for restoration of floodplain forests that have their impact on river water content in the basin and on discharge and level of spring floods.

Discussions also emphasized social aspects, rearing of the younger generation, creation of a culture of water use, and training. The participants particularly underlined a need for more active involvement of the youth in nature conservation activities. Child and youth tourism, as part of which Russian and Kazakh teenagers go out joint touristic voyages and plant trees along the river, is demonstrated as a good example. Such voyages help to restore forests in upper catchment, promote border cooperation and foster a love for nature and peace.

The important role of women in nature conservation activity and initiation of an agreement on the Ural was also emphasized. In this context, the Public Fund Ecological Movement Zhaiyk-Ural and its head Ms. Ye.Tarasova, who is an unchallenged leader of the historical-cultural and environmental expedition for the Ural River, were nominated for the Eurasian Women’s Forum award.

Finally, mass media also play an important role. Journalists are active members of the expedition and try to attract attention to the Ural’s problems and facilitate searching water for solution of existing problems.