65% of Annual Water Consumption in Kazakhstan Attributes to Agriculture

ASTANA—Annually, 20 cubic kilometers of water in Kazakhstan is directed to meet the needs of the economy, and 65% of it goes to agriculture, said Saule Temirbolatova, head of the Department of the Water Committee of the Kazakh Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.

Aktogay, a large scale, open pit mine in the East Kazakhstan Region. The remaining mine life is around 25 years. Photo credit: kazminerals.com

Addressing a webinar on water and mining in Kazakhstan on April 30, organized by the British-Kazakh Society, Temirbolatova discussed the country’s water regulations for mining enterprises. 

The webinar convened Kazakh and international experts, who shared their insights into the impact of water challenges on the mining sector, and measures undertaken by Kazakh officials to address some of these challenges.

Water consumption dynamics in Kazakhstan

The Water Resources and Irrigation Ministry is a relatively young ministry. It was established in September 2023. “The ministry’s main tasks are effective water resources management, organization of water infrastructure, digitalization of water accounting and distribution, and establishment of relations with countries on transboundary water management and water supply services,” said Temirbolatova. 

Second to agriculture in terms of water consumption is industry, accounting for 24% or six cubic kilometers. “Household drinking needs are 1.5 cubic kilometers or 6%. Other sectors of the economy consume 2.5 cubic kilometers or 10%,” she said. 

Industrial water users include metallurgy, mining and ore processing, energy, power supply, and small industries. 

“Industry withdraws 94.7% of water from surface sources. The remaining 5.3% come from groundwater sources,” added Temirbolatova. 

Speaking about water losses, she noted that the increase in losses is proportional to the increase in water withdrawals. 

“The withdrawn amount of water has been used by 97% and water losses are increasing from 2.6% in 2020 to 3.4% in 2022,” she added. 

Water consumption by industrial enterprises, including those in mining, is carried out under a special water use permit. This document is obtained from the basin inspections of the ministry’s water committee.

“According to paragraph 1 of article 66 of the Water Code of Kazakhstan, special water use includes the use of surface and underground water resources directly from a water body with or without withdrawal to meet the drinking needs of the population, the needs of agriculture, industry, energy, fisheries, and transport, as well as for the discharge of industrial and domestic drainage and other wastewater,” Temirbolatova explained. 

Impact of water challenges on mining

Similar to many countries around the world, Kazakhstan faces significant water challenges. These challenges are common across Central Asia. According to the World Bank, the majority of the water endowments in the region, which is home to nearly 76 million people, come from snow and glacier melt in the mountains. However, around 22 million people in the region do not have access to safe water. 

Delivering his remarks at the webinar, Houcyne El-Idrysy, a principal hydrogeologist at Cardiff-based SRK Consulting, highlighted the close interlink between water and mining. Water shortage is becoming “very critical” for the mining sector not only in Kazakhstan but globally. 

“A very striking example is the BHP operation in Chile. In 2018, the mining giant spent $3.5 billion on a desalination plant for the Escondida mine [a copper porphyry deposit located in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile], which included two pipes to transport water over 3,000 meters above sea level. It is a big challenge and a big cost,” said El-Idrysy.

“The minor decision came after the country stepped up the protection of water resources that had been depleted after decades of mining activity. BHP normally gets more than 40% of their water from the ocean already and has vowed to stop using fresh water down from the surface and underground by 2030 in Chile,” he said. 

He expects a similar trend will “likely take place in Kazakhstan.”

“We already have clients in Kazakhstan who had their water supply limited and recently needed to find alternatives. This is really a trend that we need to be looking at in the future, and the mining companies need to be careful about it,” he added.  

Other challenges include high pore pressure, pit slope failures, preserving water quality, and the change in groundwater regime at mind closure.

“Some mines have high pore pressure, which causes pit slope, and we often deal with this. This is a critical aspect where the mine can lose the full operation because of a failure even if the flow is low,” he said. 

In terms of water quality, one of the main contaminants in mining projects is suspended solids in water, which need to be controlled before discharge. “That is a challenging aspect in several operations worldwide,” he added. 

Metal leaching, which refers to the dissolution of metals from their natural ores into a liquid medium, is the main factor in contamination by harmful substances such as arsenic and uranium, among others. 

Increased awareness of environmental issues within the public also puts strain on investors and mining enterprises to “act responsibly.”

“With social media, the public is more aware of environmental matters now, and investors are increasingly under great pressure to act responsibly and protect mines, protect the environment and all the resources. The advances in technology can help, but obviously, there is a need for more than just that,” he said. 

More stringent regulation has been a response to some of these challenges. 

“So what is the way forward? The way forward is basically a delicate balance to be achieved between governments and stakeholders. This requires transparent reporting, information sharing and continuous engagement between all stakeholders. Obviously, the use of independent experts can help in this matter as well,” said El-Idrysy.

Kazakhstan’s approach to water

Speaking specifically about Kazakhstan, the expert commended the country’s efforts toward effective management of water resources. 

“The country is aspiring to more transparent international standards. There is a new Environmental Code, and several companies across the sector have adopted advanced technologies,” he added. 

In terms of the challenges facing Kazakhstan, he pointed out several abandoned sites and significant environmental liabilities. The mines need rehabilitation and need to be managed properly. 

“The country’s dependence on transboundary water resources also poses the risk of conflict with neighboring countries because several rivers in Kazakhstan either start or carry it around Uzbekistan, Russia, or even China,” he said. 

According to him, climate change is becoming more pertinent. This has implications for storm frequency and magnitude, snowfall and snowmelt season, and glacier melting. It can also affect river baseflow and water supply sustainability.

Tailings storage facilities

Mark Macklin, a professor of river systems and global change at the Department of Geography of the University of Lincoln, echoed El-Idrysy’s remarks about the challenges arising because of the transboundary nature of water resources.

He shared data on the mines in Kazakhstan, noting that there are 36 inactive and 83 active metal mines in the country. There are at least 21 associated tailings storage facilities, 58% of which were commissioned before 1990.

Tailings can pose significant environmental and safety risks if not managed properly. Macklin said there are 11,587 intact global tailings storage facilities, and 257 failed.  

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