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Save Kazakhstan's shrinking Lake Balkhash

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Science  16 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6514, pp. 303
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe7828

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Ecosystems supported by Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan are in jeopardy as desertification increases.

PHOTO: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Kazakhstan is home to Lake Balkhash, one of the largest inland drainless lakes in the world. Estimated to be more than 35,000 years old (1), this lake has cultural, historical, and ecological value. However, since 1970, a substantial decrease in the Ili river runoff has led to a drawdown of water reaching the lake [(2), p. 18], leading to a decrease in water depth. Out of the original 16 lake systems around Lake Balkhash, only 5 remain (1). Preserving this lake ecosystem is crucial to halting the desertification process, which has already claimed a third of the lake and will have devastating effects on the diverse flora and fauna that depend on it.

Lake Balkhash's varying degrees of water mineralization support a wide variety of species; the western basin is freshwater, whereas the eastern basin is salty (3). The lake serves as a habitat for 20 species of fish, 6 of which live only in this lake (3), and 60 species of plants that don't grow anywhere else [(4), pp. 304–310]. More than 120 bird species rely on the lake [(2), pp. 24–26], 12 of which are listed in Kazakhstan's Red Book of endangered species [(4), p. 305]. Because the lake is located in a desert area, without runoff and with a dry continental climate and very little precipitation, these species will have nowhere else to go if their water source disappears.

To protect Lake Balkhash, local legislation that regulates industrial exploitation of the lake water area should be updated and enforced. The media should actively promote environmental awareness among the population of Kazakhstan. Designating Lake Balkhash a national treasure would increase the social significance of the lake in Kazakhstan as well as abroad. Kazakhstan should monitor the lake and provide public access to up-to-date data on its parameters (especially the current volume of water). The country should also clearly define areas of responsibility among the states that are responsible for water resources management. Given rising water security risks in Kazakhstan, Lake Balkhash needs an international collaboration to provide urgent and effective protection. It is crucial that local and national policy-makers, law enforcement authorities, scientists, the public sector, socially responsible businesses, and the world community work together to protect this ancient lake.

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