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History and stories from Lake Balkhash

15 Jan 2021

Aigerim Kapar


From the capital, the way to the city of Balkhash and its lake lies 600 km through the steppes of Central Kazakhstan and the uplands of Sary Arka ([the] Steppe and lakes of Northern Kazakhstan).

Whenever I find myself in the Steppe, my imagination always starts to play. Like the hostage of an “epistemological gap”, I try to recall the cultural landscape of a rural space filled with herds of horses and sheep, yurt auls, and Arka songs – which though the home and birthplace of my grandmother, remains unfamiliar to me. Today Central Kazakhstan is an industrial belt, modernized by the colonial administration of the USSR. The pipes and mines of Temirtau, Karaganda, Dzhezkazgan, and Balkhash rise oddly above the steppes to smoke the “sky pastureland” of Tengri (the god of the sky in Turkic mythology). 

Central Kazakhstan, Temirtau city, photo by Aigerim Kapar

An artist, Syrlybek Bekbotayev, and I visited Balkhash via a road known mainly to local residents. Running through the settlement of Aktogay, it lies in connection with the reconstruction of the main highway – intended to connect the new capital with Almaty by a high-speed autobahn, within the framework of the “Nurly Zhol” kazakh state Infrastructure Development Program,  associated with the “New Silk Road” initiative of the Chinese government.

We crossed the steppe following the course of the Tokyrau River, previously abundant and a significant contributor to the formation of Balkhash Lake in the 8th and 9th centuries. The deltas of the Tokyrau river from the northern coast, and the Ili river which originates in China from the south, meet to form an isthmus along which lie the routes of the ancient Silk Road (which integrated Eastern and Central Kazakhstan in trading systems, and nomadic cultures with the sedentary and agricultural South Kazakhstan). During the 11th-13th centuries, the water in the lake increased as a result of climatic and geological processes. The isthmus flooded and was divided into two parts by the Saryesik peninsula, forming the Uzyn Aral canal where the western half is fresh and shallow and the eastern half is deep and salty. This cut off the South Balkhash region from the North, and consequently disrupted trade routes. [1]

Today, socio-economic and infrastructural relations in the region are limited to [the] military training grounds leased by the Russian Federation (8.6 million hectares, for $20 million USD) [2], including the Sary-Shagan testing ground centered in Priozersk, which until 2010 was a closed military city.

In 1928, a route beginning from Karkarly before moving along the Tokyrau stream, was followed by geological prospectors, led by soviet geologist Mikhail Rusakov (who discovered the Konyrat deposit), who later became the first builders of the copper smelter and the city of Balkhash in the 1930s. Taken over two weeks, this journey involving the transportation of construction materials and equipment on camels and horses, led to a strengthening of the Russian Empire. Memories of one of the explorers who made their way to Konyrat, saw a tablet with a message left by their colleagues near the sacred mountain Bektau Ata: “Compatriots! No more water, no grass! Go back! Otherwise, you will disappear with the cattle you have!” [3] This is often cited as evidence of the lifelessness of the territory and the severity of the conditions in which the builders of communism performed their feat. It is not surprising that it is difficult for an uninformed person in the Steppe to find water, especially in a dry, hot summer, since the Northern Balkhash region was a wintering place for the tribes of the Middle Zhuz (the Kazakh tribal system), and in the summer season, they would migrate north to summer pastures.


Lake Balkhash is 35,000 years old. Shaped like a crescent, it is surrounded by the Saryarka, Dzhungarian Alatau, and Tarbagatai ridges. The inner western region stretches to the Betpak-dala desert (named the “hungry steppe” by Russian royal colonial researchers at the end of the 19th century). Balkhash is an endless reservoir, with 80 percent of the water coming from the Ili River, which begins in China (Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Region of Xinjiang).

There is a rich history around the lake, always being a place of attraction, as evidenced by archaeological sites, rock paintings, ancient settlements and medieval cities. 

“Entire medieval urban complex of Northern Tienshan (1-20th AD): settlement location, size and type”, image Renato Sala [4]

The first mentions of Balkash Lake were found in Chinese written sources dating back to 126 BC, where it is called “Si Hai” – the Western Sea. It [also] had [a] fixed Dzungarian name: “Balkhash-Nor”, of the nomadic Oirat tribes (who were of Mongolian origin) who lived south of the lake. In the fertile delta of the Ili River, the Dzungars (among other [living] things) were engaged in flood agriculture, mainly growing wheat and building irrigation systems. It wasn’t until the Dzungar Khanate was finally defeated by the Qing Empire in the 18th century, that the Oirats were exterminated and dissolved as a state union. The territory of the Khanate was subsequently divided between the Qing and Russian Empires, and the Kazakh tribes returned to the remainder of the deserted territories.

100 years ago, nomadic and semi-nomadic cattle breeding were the primary and traditional types of farming. The tribes who inhabited these vast territories – of harsh climates and drought-ridden landscapes – moved with herds of animals, developing the only possible type of activity and lifestyle which would continue to take shape over the coming centuries. Alongside adapting to the ecosystem, they also developed their own economy, traditions, culture, and collective memory, shaped by a co-dependency with nature.

The history of metallurgical activity in this region also goes back thousands of years. Since the early Bronze Age, Nomadic tribes possessed “primitive” technologies for smelting ore in such a way where the ore – rich in non-ferrous precious metals – would often be laid out on the surface.

For several centuries, neighboring nomadic tribes of Kazakhs and Dzungars had disputes over pastures, territories, and resources but they did not carry a purposeful destructive character – contrary to how it may have otherwise been presented in the history of Kazakhstan, which was written during the Soviet period. [5] The demonization of the Kazakh-Dzhungar relations was beneficial to the historians of the Russian Empire and the USSR, justifying the colonization of the Kazakh steppes as protection from the Dzungar raids, calling it a “voluntary annexation” of Kazakhstan to Russia. In our meeting, historian and researcher at the Balkhash Museum of Local History, Daulet Kozhakhmetov, said: “we are indebted to the Dzungarian people, that at the cost of their lives, a buffer was created against Chinese aggression.”


The Soviet policies for the development and modernization of the steppe and desert expanses of Central Asia were based on an intensive exploitation of natural and human resources; and a disregard for Indigenous traditions and ways of life, the environment, and ecology, all the while armed with the slogan: “man will conquer nature!”. The dark side of this modernity was quick to appear to the Kazakh people.

The 1920-30s, characterised as a period of forced sedentarization, dispossession and resettlement of nomads, resulted in the creation of an artificial famine: “Asharshylyk”. It was also a period of time marked by a genocide in which almost 40% of the population died, and more than 1 million people migrated through China to Iran and Afghanistan. More than 12, 000 people left their native lands in the Balkhash region. As a result, the livestock population in the Ili-Balkhash basin reduced by 75%-100% – a dire situation for nomadic life where animal breeding was a critical source of support. Unused pastures degraded, which contributed to the desertification of a third of the territory in the Ili-Balkhash basin, and the continued disruption of its ecosystem. [6]

Workers from all over the USSR were resettled in Kazakhstan to places of Indigenous people for the implementation of great economic plans (of five-year projects) – but as well as this, some of them were also deported and exiled to the camps of the Gulag system (Karlag, Balkhashlag, Steplag, etc.). Repressive colonial policies, irrational management, and misuse of natural resources led to both human and environmental tragedies. The Aral sea was drained over several decades, the river system was disrupted by anthropogenic interference, and the water was depleted for the irrigation of moisture-loving crops (namely cotton and rice, which are not suitable for cultivation in the arid climate of the steppe landscape of Central Asia).

After 30 years of independence, governmental powers and economic systems have not yet been rebuilt. Kazakhstan continues to bear the burden of its raw material base, having its success measured against the formerly implemented five-year plans [of] exploiting the subsoil and insisting on forgetting pre-industrial period and culture.

Syrlybek Bekbotayev, “Five-Year Plan”, 2019“Re-membering. Dialogues of Memories” Exhibition in memory of victims of political repression, curated by Aigerim Kapar. TSE art Destination, Astana, 2019. Photo by Zhanarbek Amankulov

Balkhash Lake

Along the shores of a picturesque lake, lit with glittering emerald water, the smoking chimneys of the Balkhash Mining and Metallurgy Plant create a surreal scene and evoke a sense of unease that such a unique corner of paradise continues to be extensively exploited and polluted.

During the Soviet period, economic and industrial development, and the use of natural resources in the region, were carried out without considering the ecological capacity of the basin’s ecosystem. This was aggravated by the construction of artificial reservoirs and the Kapchagai hydroelectric power station built on the Ili River in 1967, which has been filling the basin for over 20 years. According to the resolution of the International Forum Balkhash held in Almaty in 2000, the situation of the Ili-Balkhash basin was recognized as critical due to the unstable water levels – a key indicator of the basin’s ecosystem. [7] As a result of the II International Forum “Balkhash-2005”, [an] Alakol Basin Inspection was established to regulate the use and protection of water resources.

Lake Balkhash, photo by Aigerim Kapar

Today, Lake Balkhash remains devoid of state care or any global environmental programs to save its ecosystem, and the lake and basin are left in a state of ecological and socio-economic disaster. A quiet tragedy, unfortunately, does not arouse attentive interest nor the adoption of effective measures that may prevent a repetition of the tragedy of the Aral Sea. Modern industrial, infrastructural, and economic programs – in particular, the program of OBOR and Nurly Zhol – (just like during the socialist regime of the USSR) don’t take into account the ecological burden on the environment in the region. These programs don’t consider resolving issues of transboundary rivers, water security, or access to water for local communities as a guarantee of sustainable development for the region or the success of the implementation of long-term plans and cooperation.

According to the McKinsey expert group, by 2045 Lake Balkhash may lose up to 86% of its water. [8] The threat of an environmental catastrophe is mainly attributed to the growth of economic affairs, climate change (resulting in the melting of glaciers), and industrial pollution. In the columbine area of the Ili River basin, China is cultivated by [the] irrigation of 1 million hectares of cotton. Water reservoirs have been built and hydroelectric power plants are operating, and an increase in water intake by 10-15% threatens to lower the water level in the lake to a critical condition. Within the region that lies in Kazakhstan, more than 90% of water resources are used for irrigated agriculture, mainly for growing rice and cotton, continuing the USSR’s methods of extensive production and capitalisation without any considerations to the land and the environment. Of these exploited water resources, 60-70% of which is inefficiently used and seeps into the sands through outdated irrigation systems.

The main industrial environmental pollutant in the region is the Balkhash copper smelter, built on the lake shore in 1938, 10 kilometers from the Konyrat mine, which became the backbone enterprise of the Balkhash city. 

Checkpoint of the Balkhash copper smelter. Banner caption: “Let’s build the future together!” Photo by Syrlybek Bekbotayev

Today it belongs to the Kazakhmys Smelting Corporation. According to official data for 2018, the harmful emissions into the atmosphere amounted to 72,899 tons – for which the company pays to the state budget of 3,083,699 KZT per year. [9] In settling on the surface of the lake, toxic substances penetrate the water. The indicators of heavy metals in the water grow each year and exceed permissible standards, negatively affecting the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Anthropogenic interference has also affected the species composition of the lake’s fish, where endemic species lie on the verge of extinction, and fisheries are in crisis. 

We met with researchers from the Committee of the Research and Production Center for Fisheries in Balkhash, who monitor the rational use and reproduction of fish stocks, and issue annual forecasts of fish catch volumes. The committee is also looking for new opportunities for the preservation and development of fisheries, but their activities are limited by financial and other resources.

Gas emissions of the city-forming enterprise are a great sore spot and the most difficult problem for the townspeople, city administration and the plant – a situation which has not been resolved for several decades. [However], Rymkul Belyalovna, a local ecologist who has worked for many years in the department for the protection of natural resources, spoke of a (far from perfect) system for assessing material damage and paying compensation for atmospheric emissions to the residents, in the case of complaints.

Pipes of a copper smelter and thermal power plant, Balkhash city. Photo by Syrlybek Bekbotayev.

In September, plant workers posted a video on social media showing faulty pipe filters which elicited a great public resonance. The plant was only fined 1,000,000 tenge – by comparison, a beauty salon that violated quarantine work restrictions was fined 600,000 tenge. [10]

In news from Balkhash – which also currently holds the status of being the most polluted city in Kazakhstan – plans of the local authorities to develop the tourist potential of the lake, without eliminating the source of pollution, are seen as difficult to implement. Alongside this, the Ministry of Ecology launched a project for a roadmap of environmental problems in the Karaganda region this year, which plans to reduce emissions of harmful substances and modernize mining enterprises in the region.

“This is my city, my combine, my factory”

We received a dedication to the gas of a copper smelter upon [our] arrival late in the evening. On that day, the wind blowing from the direction of the plant was especially felt in the air. Aizat, our hospitable guide through the city and its senses, and a student of the Kazakh language and literature, says that her mother is kidding: “nevertheless this gas kills all harmful germs in the body”.

Bertys bay, view of the city of Balkhash. Photo by Syrlybek Bekbotayev.

Geologist Mikhail Rusakov received an award for the discovery of “blue hill” [11] a trip to the USA to study new technologies in the mining industry. Upon arrival, he was sentenced to 25 years in a prison camp under espionage charges. After 5 years he was rehabilitated and returned to Balkhash, where he discovered several more deposits.

The town of Balkhash grew out of the workers’ village in Bertys Bay (as One tooth), fuelling the industrial development of the Konyrat mine since 1930. The mine was developed by the labor of workers from all over the USSR. The city was built by the forces of prisoners of camps and Japanese prisoners of war. The policy of the Soviets forced the nomads, who were left without resources to sustain their own livelihoods, to be hired in industrial enterprises. My grandfather’s family from the Madeniet (Culture) auyl of Northern Kazakhstan were forced to work through severe hunger while working at the factories of Magnitogorsk.

Palace of Culture of Metallurgists named after Magaui Khamzin on Lenin Street. Photo by Syrlybek Bekbotayev.

After 90 years, mining at Konyrat has finally stopped. The “blue hill” disappeared and became a gaping crater – a model of which can be viewed in the local history museum of Balkhash, where in its halls of exposition, the entire history of Kazakhstan is presented in an attempt to revise itself from a decolonial position – though this position barely touches the history of the factory or the construction of the city. 

Model of the Konyrat mine, Balkhash Local History Museum. Photo by Aigerim Kapar

Soviet propaganda and its methods have been minimally criticized or rethought, and so continue to manifest themselves on the city streets and public spaces. It is not enough to replace monuments on pedestals and rename streets to create a “new” history and future.

Monument to Agybai batyr (1802-1885), Independence Square. Photo by Syrlybek Bekbotayev

In his book “The Pride of Balkhash” (2010), historian and factory veteran, Sovet Kaukerbekuly, denotes his belonging to the place with the words: “This is my city, my factory, my combine”, effectively omitting the lake and its importance in the context of the city. Rather, the stories, hopes, and destinies of the people who built the “bright future” are what is woven around the plant.

Today Lake Balkhash remains “invisible”. Its physical scale is not proportionate with the space occupied in the minds of people, the cultural landscape, public agenda, or the policy of the authorities, despite its value for the entire ecosystem of the region, the country, not to mention, the planet. Sadly nothing alarmingly new, this sentiment is a general reflection of the alienation of man from nature in the Anthropocene epoch, and his attitude and interaction with the environment.

Aigerim Kapar, Almaty 2020

Aigerim Kapar is an independent curator, cultural activist, founder of the creative communication platform «Artcom».
[1] Stasiv Igor, “On the origin of Lake Balkhash and the Balkhash-Alakol depression”, 2018
[2] Dinara Kuatova, “8.6 million hectares of land leases for military training grounds Kazakhstan”, 2019
[3] Sovet Kaukerbekuly, “The Pride of the Balkhash”, Karaganda, 2010, p. 38
[4] Renato Sala “The medieval urbanization of Semirechye”, 2010
[5] Radik Temirgaliev “Dzungars in the history of Kazakhstan”, 2007джунгары-в-истории-казахстана/
[6] Zhuldyzbek Abylkhozhin, “Study of the ecology of the Ili-Balkhash Region in the Soviet Period”, 2010
[7] The International Ecological Forum “Balkhash-2000”,
[8] Dr. Bulat K. Yessekin,“Ecosystem management in Balkhash Lake basin as a model of SDG localization in Kazakhstan and Central Asia region, 2020
[9] Unified ecological resource of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources, Kazakhmys Smelting LLP Balkhash Copper Smelter, 2018
[10] Balkhash Copper Smelter was fined one million tenge
[11] Sovet  Kaukerbekuly, “The Pride of the Balkhash”, Karaganda, 2010, p. 40
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