Water levels are falling on the Ural, the third-longest river in Europe. The river begins in Russia’s Ural Mountains, flowing through Kazakhstan before emptying into the Caspian Sea.
This year, despite a very snowy winter and the expectation of floods, the water level of the river did not rise at all.
“Look, the Ural River has become so shallow that islands are appearing,” says local resident, Aleksei, pointing towards the river. “Soon it will be possible to cross the river on foot. I have never seen it like that.”
In 2018, environmentalists stated that the water level reached a new record low. Activists and government officials said it dropped even more in 2019.
Some towns and cities rely on the river for water supplies. This is now becoming a problem.
In the early autumn of 2019 the city of Uralsk, the administrative center of the West Kazakhstan region, was left without water. The water in the river became so shallow that the water pumps did not work. The bottom of the river was dredged but this provided just a temporary respite.
City water officials said that eventually Uralsk would have to switch to underground water sources. They cited low water levels, but also said the river was too polluted.
Local environmental activist Arman Bektenov says switching to underground water sources will not change the overall situation of the river.
“We will begin to pump out water sources by which the Ural River is being replenished. That is, in fact, the same as taking water from the Ural River,” he says.
Pollution is also a major issue on the river.
The creation of an inter-regional agreement to preserve the river’s ecosystem has been discussed for many years, but little has happened.
The first meeting of a Russian-Kazakh commission took place in November 2018.
In July 2019 another meeting, of officials and environmentalists, was held in Uralsk. It recommendation setting up a bilateral Kazakh-Russian body to deal with the river’s problems.
According to officials, negotiations on this are ongoing.
Local journalist Aleksandr Suyetin, who has been reporting on the problems of the Ural River for 30 years, believes that in order to restore the river’s water level it’s necessary to stop the construction of reservoirs along it.
“I counted how many reservoirs there are in the Ural River basin — 19. This must be stopped,” he says.
In December 2018 a mass die-off of fish occurred where the river flows through Atyrau, Kazakhstan’s largest oil-producing region. According to official figures, 119 tons of fish died. It was blamed on a major chemical leak on December 3.
Scientists from the regional Environment Ministry said water samples showed excessive concentrations of chlorides.
The day before, on December 2, dead fish were reported in the Nizhnyaya Peretaska, a canal connected to the Ural River. Two large enterprises have access to this сanal: an oil refinery and a power station. Legal action is ongoing.
These fish die-offs occurred despite the authorities declaring in early 2019 that the river water was clean and that fish caught there were safe for consumption.