Water profile of Kyrgyzstan

Source: FAO

Geography and Population

caption Map of Kyrgystan (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked country in Central Asia with a total area of 198,500 square kilometers (km2). It is bordered in the north by Kazakhstan, in the east and southeast by China, in the southwest by Tajikistan and in the west by Uzbekistan. It became independent from the Soviet Union in August 1991. The country is divided into six provinces (oblasts).

The country is largely mountainous, dominated by the western reaches of the Tien Shan range in the northeast and the Pamir-Alay in the southwest. The highest mountain is the Victory Peak (Tomur Feng, 7,439 meters (m) above sea level) at the eastern tip of the country, on the border with China. The mountain stands in the Mustag massif, one of the world's largest glacier, covering 1,579 km2. About 94% of the country is located at more than 1,000 m above sea level, and 40% above 3,000 m. Much of the mountain region is permanently covered with ice and snow, and there are many glaciers (covering about 4% of the territory). The Fergana mountain range, running from the northwest across the country to the central-southern border region, separates the eastern and central mountain areas from the Fergana valley in the west and southwest. Other lowland areas include the Chu and Talas valleys near the northern border with Kazakhstan. The world's second largest crater lake, Lake Issyk-Kul, lies in the northeast of the country.

caption Figure 1. Land categories (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The cultivable land is estimated at 10.1 million hectares (ha). In 1994, the cultivated area was estimated at 1.34 million ha, which was about 13% of the cultivable area. About 97% consisted of annual crops and 3% of permanent crops. A major program of land reform is well advanced. Most of the land formerly controlled by the 195 kolkhoz (collective farms) and 275 sovkhoz (state farms) is being distributed to their employees and dependants in the form of certificates extending 99 years of land-use rights. This process is still underway with only 63% of all agricultural land reported as fully privatized and de-collectivized. Agricultural land is estimated at 9.34 million ha, including at least 7.8 million ha of permanent pasture. The latest statistics available (1994) show that out of these 9.34 million ha, kolkhoz cover 2.56 million ha, sovkhoz 0.89 million ha, private farms 1.71 million ha, and associations of farmers (agricultural stock companies) 4.18 million ha (Figure 1).

The total population is about 4.5 million (1996), of which 61% is rural. The average population density varies from 6 inhabitants/km2 in the eastern mountainous zone to about 70 inhabitants/km2 in the north of the country. The annual population growth rate fell from 2.2% in 1989 to 1.8% in 1995, mainly because of the difficult economic situation prevailing since independence and the migration of part of the population away from the Kyrgyz Republic. In 1996, 31% of the economically active population was engaged in agriculture. In 1994, agriculture accounted for about 33% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), and the contribution of crop production to the agricultural product was about 57%, of which 80% were irrigated crops and 20% rainfed crops.

Climate and Water Resources


The climate in the Kyrgyz Republic is continental with hot summers and cold winters, during which frost occurs all over the country. The frost-free period is 185 days per year in the Chu valley, 120-140 days per year in the Naryn valley and 240 days per year in the Fergana valley. Double cropping is therefore limited to vegetables. Average temperatures in the valleys vary from -18°C in January to 28°C in July. Absolute temperatures vary from -54°C in winter to 43°C in summer. The average annual precipitation is estimated at 533 millimeters (mm), varying from 150 mm in the plains (Fergana valley) to over 1,000 mm in the mountains. Precipitation occurs during the winter season, mainly between October and April, when temperatures are low. Rainfed agriculture is therefore very limited. Snowfall constitutes an important part of the total precipitation. About 10% of the territory, situated at the lowest altitude, is classed as arid.

River Basins and Water Resources

caption Figure 2. Internal renewable surface water resources by river basin (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The country can be divided into two hydrological zones: the flow generation zone (mountains), covering 171,800 km2, or 87% of the territory; and the flow dissipation zone of 26,700 km2, which is 13% of the territory. Most of the rivers are fed by glaciers and/or snow melt. Peak flows occur from April to July, with 80-90% of the flow in the period of about 120-180 days extending to August or September.

There are six main river basin groups in the country. No rivers flow into the Kyrgyz Republic. The river basins are, from the largest to the smallest (Figure 2):

  • The Syr Darya River basin. Called the Naryn River before it reaches the Fergana valley, the Syr Darya flows to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, the Syr Darya receives the Chatkal, a tributary which rises in the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • The Chu, Talas, and Assa river basin. All three rivers flow to Kazakhstan, where the part not withdrawn is lost in the desert.
  • The southeastern river basins. These consist of small catchment areas draining to China. The main rivers are the Aksay, Sary Dzhaz, and Kek Suu, and are situated at high elevations.
  • The Lake Issyk-Kul interior basin. The lake is low-saline and it is estimated that all the flow which is not evaporated is used for irrigation or domestic purposes.
  • The Amu Darya River basin. The Amu Darya rises mainly in Tajikistan, but receives the contribution of a Kyrgyz tributary, the Kyzyl Suu, in the southwest of the country.
  • The Lake Balkhash basin. It consists of the small catchment of the Ili River, which rises in the Kyrgyz Republic and flows to this Kazakh lake.
Renewable Surface Water Resources (RSWR) by major river basin
River basinRegionPart of territoryInternal RSWROutflow to:Part to be reserved by treatiesActual RSWR
  %km3/year km3/yearkm3/year
Syr DaryaWest55.327.25Tajikistan and Uzbekistan22.334.92
Chu, Talas and AssaNorth21.16.83Kazakhstan2.034.80
Lake Issyk-KulNortheast6.51.50Interior basin-1.50
Amu DaryaSouthwest3.91.93Tajikistan1.510.42
Lake BalkhashNortheast0.30.36Kazakhstan-0.36
Total 10044.05 25.8718.18

The average natural surface water flow is estimated at 44.05 cubic kilometers (km3/year), all internally produced. The former Soviet Union (FSU) allocated about 25% of these water resources to the Kyrgyz Republic, with the rest going to the neighboring republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. This rule did not concern the resources generated in the southeastern basins, since they flow towards China, and the very limited resources generated in the Lake Balkhash basin. This allocation has been re-endorsed by the five states of Central Asia, until a new water strategy for the Aral Sea basin, which is being prepared by the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination, proposes another sharing. The surface water resources allocated to the Kyrgyz Republic are calculated every year, depending on the existing flows. However, on average, it can be considered that they represent a volume of 11.64 km3/year. In addition, the 6.18 km3/year of the southeastern basin and the 0.36 km3/year of the Lake Balkhash basin are available for use, giving a total of 18.18 km3/year of annual renewable surface water resources (ARSWR).

The annual renewable groundwater resources have been estimated at 13.6 km3/year, of which about 11.2 km3/year is common to surface water resources. The groundwater resources for which abstraction equipment exists (1991) have been estimated at 3.39 km3/year, mainly in the Chu River basin (2.02 km3/year or 60% of the total), the Syr Darya River basin (0.73 km3/year or 22%), and the Issyk-Kul depression (0.52 km3/year or 15%).

The ARWR of the Kyrgyz Republic can thus be estimated at 20.58 km3/year.

Non-conventional Sources of Water

In 1994, the return flow on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic was estimated at 2.1 km3/year, of which 30% in the Chu River basin and 70% in the Syr Darya River basin. This total consists of 1.72 km3/year of agricultural drainage water collected through the collector-drainage canals, and about 0.38 km3/year of municipal and industrial untreated wastewater. Most of the return flow (1.8 km3/year) flows back to the rivers (0.3 km3/year in the Chu River and 1.5 km3/year in the Syr Darya), and might be re-used by downstream countries, while 0.3 km3/year is directly re-used for irrigation, after a natural desalting treatment (phytomelioration).

Lakes and dams

The total number of natural lakes in the Kyrgyz Republic is 1,923, with a total surface area of 6,800 km2. The largest lake is Lake Issyk-Kul with a total area of 6,236 km2.

Due to the glacier and snow origin of most of the rivers, low and unreliable flows are often the rule in the months of August and September, which correspond to the latter part of the growing season. Regulation of these flows is thus needed to ensure that adequate water supplies are available over the whole cropping period.

In 1995, the total capacity of reservoirs was estimated at 23.5 km3. There were 18 reservoirs: 6 in the Chu River basin, with a total capacity of 0.6 km3; 3 in the Talas River basin, with a total capacity of 0.6 km3; and 9 in the Syr Darya River basin, with a total capacity of 22.3 km3. The Toktogul dam, with a reservoir capacity of 19.5 km3, is situated on the Naryn River, a northern tributary of the Syr Darya. It is a multipurpose dam for irrigation, hydropower production and flood protection/regulation. However, due to its location near the border with Uzbekistan, it does not play an important role in the irrigation of areas within the Kyrgyz Republic. The same applies to the Kirov dam, which has a capacity of 0.55 km3 and is located on the Talas River near the border with Kazakhstan.

caption Figure 3. Water withdrawal (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The gross theoretical hydropower potential in the Kyrgyz Republic has been estimated in 1985 at about 162,500 gigawatt hours/year (Gwh/year), and the economically feasible potential is estimated at about 55,000 GWh/year. The hydropower installed capacity is estimated at about 3 gigawatts (GW), a number of hydropowerplants being part of the Naryn-Syr Darya cascade, controlled by the Toktogul dam. Hydropower plays a key role in the Kyrgyz Republic and is the country's main source of energy (about 90% of electricity generation in 1995), given its limited gas, oil, and coal resources. However, hydropower production releases water mainly in winter, while the downstream countries would need water for the summer cropping season. At regional level, competition between irrigation and hydropower appears to be a major issue. An agreement was reached with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1996. These two countries will transfer energy, coal or gas to the Kyrgyz Republic in the period of power deficit, to compensate for the non-use of water for hydropower in the winter period.

Water Withdrawal and Wastewater

caption Figure 4. Evolution of water withdrawal (Source: FAO-Forestry)
caption Figure 5. Origin of water used by sector (Source: FAO-Forestry)

In 1994, the total water withdrawal was estimated at 10.1 km3 (Figure 3), including the re-use of drainage waters. The total water withdrawal increased progressively from 1970 to 1990 (Figure 4). The average annual surface water availability for irrigation in the period 1985-1992 was about 10.77 km3, although the water requirement had been evaluated at 10.83 km3, leading to an overall irrigation water deficit for the country of 0.06 km3. In some basins (Syr Darya, Chu, Talas) there was a fairly severe water shortage, while in other basins (Amu Darya, Issyk-Kul, southeastern) there was a surplus.

In 1994, more than 0.6 km3 of water was withdrawn from groundwater (Figure 5). Other water needs, mainly for fisheries, were estimated at 9 million m3/year in 1994. A prospective analysis shows that in 2010 the water demand might be 13.07 km3/year, which exceeds the current allocation.

Irrigation and Drainage Development

Irrigation Development


caption Figure 6. Evolution of irrigation (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Irrigation is of key importance to the agricultural sector of the Kyrgyz Republic and covers 80% of the cultivated area. The irrigation potential has been estimated at about 2.25 million ha.

Compared with 0.43 million ha in 1943, irrigation was estimated to cover 1.08 million ha in 1994, almost half of the irrigation potential, all equipped for full control irrigation (Figure 6). Irrigation has been developed mainly in the Syr Darya River basin (42%), in the Talas and Chu river basins (41%), and around Lake Issyk-Kul.

The main irrigation technique is surface irrigation (Figure 7). Sprinkler irrigation was practised on 141,000 ha in 1990, and 12 ha of micro-irrigation were reported in 1990. Due to the lack of spare parts (all equipment was produced in the Russian Federation), and the substantially increased cost of energy, sprinkler irrigation has decreased during the 1990s. About 37,000 ha remained in use in 1994.

caption Figure 8. Origin of irrigated water (Source: FAO-Forestry)
caption Figure 7. Irrigation techniques (Source: FAO-Forestry)
caption Figure 9. Typology of irrigation canals (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Water is mainly supplied through river diversion (Figure 8). Of the total irrigated area, only 14% relies on reservoir water or groundwater (mainly around Lake Issyk-Kul). The irrigation network consists of 12,835 km of canals, most of them unlined (Figure 9).

In 1990, there were a total of 1,346 irrigation schemes. Large schemes, mainly kolkhoz or sovkhoz, represented 60% of the irrigated area in 1990 (Figure 10). The privatization program which has been undertaken recently will probably lead to an increase in the number of small farms (less than 50 ha) in the near future.

The inter-farm irrigation network is generally well maintained, particularly the main canals downstream of the large storage dams. The distribution network within the kolkhoz and sovkhoz is generally poorly designed, built and maintained. Seepage and leakage losses in the distribution system are considerable, resulting in a conveyance/distribution efficiency estimated at 55%.

Characteristics of the irrigation schemes (1990)
SizeNumber of schemesTotal area of schemes (ha)Average area of scheme (ha)Number of beneficiariesNumber of benefic./ha
Small (<1,000 ha)1,174204,500170486,4002.4
Medium (1,000-5,000 ha)101229 4002 270648 4002.8
Large (>5,000 ha)71643,2009,0601,688,5002.6

The average cost of surface irrigation development (1995) varies from $US 5,800/ ha for small schemes to $US 8,500/ha for medium schemes and $US 11,600/ha for large schemes. The respective costs for sprinkler irrigation are $US 6,900, 10,400 and 14,200/ha. However, these costs vary substantially depending on the physiographic conditions. In general, the costs are lower in the Chu valley and the Issyk-Kul depression and higher in the Syr Darya valley, which is more mountainous. Rehabilitation costs vary between $US 2,400 and 5,000/ha.

caption Figure 10. Irrigation scheme size (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The annual operations and maintenance (O&M) cost which would enable full cost recovery is estimated at $US 350/ha, but the actual operational costs have not exceeded $US 60/ha in the last four years. In the past, farmers were not charged for water, although the land tax was two or three times higher on irrigated land than on non-irrigated land of similar quality. However, the financial situation has changed dramatically and the Ministry of Water Resources is no longer able to cover irrigation costs from general tax revenues. In 1992-93, a water fee was imposed on the kolkhoz and sovkhoz.

In 1995, the Ministry of Water Resources proposed a water charge equivalent to $US 0.6/1,000 cubic meters (m3), to cover the O&M costs. Parliament approved the equivalent of $US 0.1/1,000 m3, an amount which was divided by three for supplementary irrigation during autumn and winter seasons. In 1995, only 29% of the charges due were collected.

caption Figure 11. Irrigated crops (Source: FAO-Forestry)

The major irrigated crops are fodder crops and cereals, mainly wheat (Figure 11). Other figures show that only 732,000 ha, instead of 1,077,100 ha, might have been harvested on irrigated areas in 1993. Although the yields for irrigated land are generally low by world standards, they are about two to five times higher than yields on non-irrigated areas. The average yields for wheat, barley and rye are, respectively, 2.2, 2.2, and 1.9 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) on irrigated land and 1.1, 0.9 and 1.0 t/ha on rainfed land.

Waterlogging, Salinity, and Drainage Development

caption Figure 12. Drainage techniques (Source: FAO-Forestry)

In 1994, about 60,000 ha were saline by Central Asia standards (toxic ions exceed 0.5% of total soil weight). In addition to this area, which can be distinguished into 34,200 ha moderately saline and 25,800 ha highly saline, a further 63,400 ha were slightly saline. In the Chu River basin, about 15% of the irrigated area is considered saline, while this figure falls to 5% in the Syr Darya River basin. The waterlogged area was estimated at 89,200 ha in 1990.

It is estimated that 750,000 ha of irrigated land would need drainage. At present only 149,000 ha have been equipped for drainage. Subsurface drainage has been developed mainly on newly reclaimed areas in the north and southwest (Figure 12). With the very restricted budget of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, it is unlikely that the state will be able to maintain and operate the existing drainage system effectively, or to improve or extend it. For this reason, salinity and drainage problems are likely to worsen in the near future.

Institutional Environment

The Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources (formerly there were two separate ministries) is in charge of water resources research, planning, development and distribution, and undertakes the construction, operation and maintenance of the irrigation and drainage networks at the inter-farm level of the country. Water allocations are regularly reduced in order to promote savings and to satisfy the demand from new users. In the case of the Syr Darya River basin, one of the objectives is also to increase the flow to the Aral Sea.

In the past, irrigation systems were designed and operated to deliver water to the large sovkhoz and kolkhoz and it was a relatively easy task for the Ministry of Water Resources to deliver water to each farm. However, with the increasing number of small farms that has resulted from the privatization program, there is a need for institutions which provide technical support to farmers, and which are in an intermediate position between the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources and the farmers.

Article 18 of the new water law (14 January 1994) includes specific provisions for the establishment of WUAs which would receive water from the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources and allocate it among their members. They would have legal status, be independent of the government, be able to collect taxes from their members, borrow funds, and take appropriate action to maintain and upgrade their parts of the irrigation system, which are the on-farm systems formerly operated by the sovkhoz and kolkhoz.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is responsible for domestic water supply and wastewater treatment.

Monitoring of surface water quantity and quality is carried out by the Kyrgyz Hydrometeorological Agency, while the systematic exploration, investigation and monitoring of groundwater is carried out by the State Committee for Geology and Hydrogeological Expedition.

At international level, the Kyrgyz Republic is a member of the Syr Darya River BWO, ICWC, and IFAS.

Trends in Water Resources Management

The Kyrgyz Republic is endowed with sufficient quantities of water of excellent quality for domestic and industrial use for the foreseeable future. Due to commitments towards downstream countries, water availability is likely to become a constraint on expanding irrigation, extending land reclamation, and improving productivity of irrigated areas, unless there are significant improvements in efficiency, and a major effort made to increase water conservation.

The main environmental problems in the country are related to: the water pollution, due to the poor quality of the existing plants for wastewater treatment; the absence of treatment for saline return flow from agricultural land; and possible contamination from the radioactive refuse inherited from the Soviet period.

Other environmental problems are related to: the observed reduction of glaciers, which might lead to a reduction in flow; to soil erosion and the resulting siltation of reservoirs, which limit the possibility of flow regulation; and to the increase of soil salinity, which might become a constraint on farming.

According to the agricultural sector review of the World Bank (1995), the following three key issues need immediate attention to secure the sustainability of irrigation in the Kyrgyz Republic:

  • New institutional arrangements must be made at farm level to manage and maintain the distribution of water within the former sovkhoz and kolkhoz as farming units are privatized. For this, the need to create WUAs has been felt. The new water law already provides a framework for this, but the establishment of such WUAs will require further attention.
  • The financing of O&M of the existing systems must be secured and obtained largely from water users. The new water law has a section devoted to water fees and taxes. There are charges for water use, for the service of providing water (collection, transport, distribution, and purification) and for the discharge of polluting substances into water. There are also provisions for increased fees if water consumption rates exceed forecast levels. There are also fee exemptions for the use of water-saving technologies and other water conservation measures.
  • Environmental degradation of the irrigation systems and the irrigated lands must be guarded against through increased efforts to improve drainage and to reduce salinity and soil erosion. For this, a program to improve irrigation efficiency and reduce water applications, especially in the higher lands, is needed. The steep slopes of the irrigated lands in the mountain areas with shallow soils should enable the conversion to sprinkler or micro-irrigation methods, especially where water under pressure can be provided.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Food and Agriculture Organization should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2007). Water profile of Kyrgyzstan. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156958


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