Kazakhstan's Environment & Land

The Kazakhstan Land

Except for strings of mountains along its southern and eastern borders, Kazakhstan is almost as flat as a pancake. At 2.7 million sq km, it's the ninth-biggest country in the world, about the size of Western Europe. It borders Russia to the north, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the south, and China in the east. It has lengthy shorelines on the Caspian Sea (1894km) and on the Aral Sea, which it shares with Uzbekistan.

Southeast Kazakhstan lies along the northern edge of the Tian Shan; Mt Khan Tengri (7010m) pegs the China-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border. Kazakhstan's eastern border, shared with China, is a series of mountain ranges culminating in the Altay where some peaks top 4000m.

The north of the country is flat, mostly treeless steppe, as much akin to Siberia as to Central Asia, with much of its original grassland now turned over to wheat or other agriculture. Further south and west the steppe is increasingly arid, becoming desert or semidesert. A surprising number of lakes break up the steppe, especially in the north.

The most important rivers are the Syr-Darya, flowing across the south of Kazakhstan to the Little Aral Sea; the Ural, flowing from Russia into the Caspian Sea; the Ili, flowing out of China into Lake Balkhash; and the Irtysh, which flows across northeast Kazakhstan into Siberia. Lake Balkhash in the central east is the fourth-largest lake in Asia (17,400 sq km) but very shallow - only 26m at its deepest point

Kazakhstan's mountains are rich in wildlife, including bear, lynx, argali sheep, ibex, wolves, wild boar, several types of deer, the goitred gazelle (known locally as the zheyran), and the elusive snow leopard, of which about 30 remain in the Altay, the mountains south of Almaty and the Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve. The saiga antelope population has been reduced from two million to 40,000 in 20 years, chiefly by poaching: its horns are considered an aphrodisiac in China. The saiga survives in Kazakhstan only in the Betpak-Dala desert west of Lake Balkhash and in an area near Uralsk. The antlers of the large maral deer are also believed to have aphrodisiac properties and the animal is formed for this reason in the Altay. In the Altyn-Emel National Park, Przewalski's horses, extinct in Kazakhstan since 1940, have been reintroduced from zoos in Europe.


As Kazakhs continue to reassert their identity, the government invested almost US$40 million in the Hollywood-style epic Nomad (Koshpendller in Kazakh, Kochevnik in Russian), about 18th-century Kazakh resistance to the invading Zhungars and unification under Abylay Khan. This all-action, lavishly filmed production was the most expensive Kazakh film ever made. An entire 18th-century town was built on the steppe near the Ili River, and the cast included Hollywood stars Jay Hernandez, Jason Scott Lee, Kuno Becker, Ron Yuan and Mark Dacascos. Nomad proved a big hit on release in Kazakhstan in 2006. Release in the West was pending at time of writing. The film was based on part of a celebrated historical novel of Kazakh nation-building. Nomads, by llyas Yesenberlin (1915-83).

The golden eagle on Kazakhstan's flag is a good omen for ornithologists. Hundreds of bird species are to be seen, from the paradise flycatcher of Aksu-Dzhabagly to the Himalayan snowcock and the relict gulls of Lake Alakol. More spectacular to the casual traveller are the thousands of flamingos which spend summer at Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, 150km southwest of Astana. See www.kazakhstanbirdtours.com for good bird background.

Environmental Issues

Because of its vast size and relative emptiness, Kazakhstan, more than any other Central Asian country, was forced to endure the worst excesses of the Soviet system - a fearful legacy it is still grappling with. The Aral Sea catastrophe (pl51) is well known, but the country also continues to suffer from the fallout, both literal and metaphorical, of Soviet nuclear tests conducted mainly near Semey in eastern Kazakhstan. The Caspian Sea is another environmental flashpoint, as oil and gas exploitation has an increasing impact. Industrial air pollution, especially from metallurgical plants, is still bad in cities such as Karaganda, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Ekibastuz and Kostanay.


During the Cold War, far from both Moscow and the eyes of the West, some 460 nuclear tests were carried out at the Polygon, as the testing ground near Semey was known. Although looking empty on the map, the region around the Polygon certainly wasn't uninhabited: villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers.

The end for the Polygon came about as a result of the Nevada-Semey Movement, a popular protest launched in the wake of two particular tests in 1989. Within a few days more than a million signatures had been collected on Kazakhstan's streets calling for an end to the tests. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan called for the closure of the Polygon, and President Nazarbaev closed the site in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, announcing compensation for the victims. The tragic effects linger, however: genetic mutations, cancers, weakened immune systems and mental illness continue to destroy lives and occupy hospitals and clinics in and around Semey, and may do so for generations to come. The website of Kazakhstan's embassy in the USA (www.kazakhembus.com) issues a heartfelt plea for assistance and an appeal on behalf of the Semey Oncology Centre where cancers are treated. The UN Development Programme says the number of irradiated people in the area has reached half a million. According to the Karaganda Ecological Museum, there is a shortfall of about US$100 million in compensation payments.


In 1954 under Khrushchev, the Soviet government undertook to expand arable land on a massive scale by irrigating the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The water was to come via canals from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya, and certain Siberian rivers would be tapped or even reversed.

The Siberian part was dropped but the rest went ahead with great fanfare. Only under glasnost (openness) did the downside become clear. In some areas of the Kazakh steppe, soil has become degraded or is so over-fertilised that local rivers and lands are seriously polluted. By some measures, the problems of erosion, aridity and salinity are on a larger scale than those associated with the Aral Sea (p77). One UN report estimates that the country has lost 1.2 billion tonnes of topsoil.


As the Kashagan underwater oilfield is being prepared for exploitation, and other fields around the Caspian are already being pumped, the environmental future of the world's largest lake hangs in the balance.

An estimated 2000 sq km of land has been contaminated by oil accidents, spills and leak, and flaring-off of unwanted gas has caused air pollution and health problems in the area of the Tenghiz oilfield.

Signs of trouble are also visible among the sea's 415 species of fish, including the famous beluga (white) sturgeon, source of the world's best caviar. A beluga can grow 6m in length and the 100kg of caviar that it might yield can sell for a quarter of a million dollars.