Balkhash: the western sea at the east of Kazakhstan

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Balkhash for the Chinese, from whom the whole science of geography in our lands began, was “the Western sea” – Si-khai. And on the first European maps it was just “the Sea” – “Tenghiz”. For the Turks, inhabiting steppes, the large basin was just this. But in its today’s name - Balkhash – there either the Turkish long-forgotten comparison, meaning “slough or swamp”, or the Mongolian place-name “long lake” was inscribed. 

Sea or swamp?

So, why was the proud sea transformed into the vulgar “swamp”? Has its nature changed fundamentally during these two millennia that Balkhash is known to the global geography? It’s hardly so. Although the lake is really one of these “pools” (alongside with Alakol’, Sassykol’, Ebi-Nur, etc.), which have been left here instead of the large inner sea that was located in the middle of Asia and was not smaller than the Caspian Sea – this fact couldn’t really survive in the memory of the mankind. It’s not because the mankind has poor memory, but because in the time of proto-Balkhash there was no trace of humans here.

Fresh or salt-water?

There are two diametrically opposed answers to this question. “It’s fresh!” an educated resident of Saryshagan will exclaim dogmatically. “No! It’s salt-water!” a simple resident of Lepsy will reasonably protest. And both of them will be absolutely right.

Balkhash is unique because it is a really fresh (in its western part) and salt-water (in eastern one) lake at the same time.

As for the reasons of it, there are three of them.

First – the length and configuration of the lake, which looks like either a not very straight intestine, or a rugged bandy (for the “Russian hockey”), if you look at it on the map.

Second – the peninsula Sary Essik, which has been just a little bit too small to reach the far bank and thus to become a dam between the two independent basins. Owing to it, Balkhash has two distinct and nearly autonomous hollows – western and eastern.

And finally, third. The great and powerful river Ili is still able (despite all the economic experiments) to desalt the western part of this shallow “sea”. It is alone is bigger than the rest six rivers of Jetysu (seven rivers), which fall into the eastern basin and can’t, however, compensate the salination of this natural sun vapour source (or evaporator).

To be or not to be?

By the way, this peculiarity of the Balkhash Lake’s geography served as the grounds for one of the Balkhash saving project, which emerged in the period of the “ecological concern” in 1970s. When the fact of the soonest devastation of the Aral Sea became clear (despite the international community, coordination of efforts, and various “funds for saving”), the bright statecrafts, who were obliged to submit reports, joined the struggle for other natural sites. Including Balkhash, the unclear status of which was the reason for rightful anxiety after the Kapchagai dam had been built on the Ili River. 

Just then the thought of genius occurred to their minds – to artificially prolong the peninsula Sary Essik and to lock the lake with the dam. Into halves. And thus, having sacrificed the desert eastern basin, to conserve the western part, inhabited and crucial in regard to military defense and industry. Yes, there was such a project in the celebrated series of the social realism “Let’s turn all the rivers back!”

Balkhash geography:

Size – about 18000 sq. km.

Length – 614 km, maximum width – 74 km.

Depth: average – 6 m, maximum – 27 m.

Water volume – 106 cubic km.

Legislation of shoreline – 2380 km.

Fish: 20 species (6 endemic ones).

Water salinity: 0,5 gram per liter in the western part, 4,4 gram per liter in the eastern part.

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