100,000 forced from homes in Kazakhstan by “biblical” flooding linked to climate change

100,000 forced from homes in Kazakhstan by “biblical” flooding linked to climate change
The scenes of devastation on April 10 moved Pope Francis to pray for victims in Kazakhstan and Russia during his weekly audience in St Peter's Square. / rfe/rl video report, screenshot
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty April 11, 2024

More than 100,000 people have now been evacuated in Kazakhstan’s battle against the worst flooding to have hit the country in eight decades.

People have been working through both day and night to reinforce embankments and dykes.

Authorities have also evacuated over 81,000 farm animals to higher ground and safer areas.

Across the border in Russia, where the battle is on to rescue people and property from “biblical” flooding of a similar scale, the role of climate change in the disaster has been under discussion after emergency officials attributed the catastrophe to a combination of soil that was waterlogged before winter, rapid snowmelt amid a sudden early spring weather change after the big freeze of the cold months and heavy spring rains.

The extremely fast snowmelt is clearly a big factor but, as bne IntelliNews recently reported, last year’s disaster season saw catastrophic floods around the world driven by record levels of rainfall. The hotter the world gets, the more water the air can hold and the more it will rain, and the consequences of this scientific reality are expected to be even worse this year, according to Climate Signals. 

In Kazakhstan, it was necessary to evacuate as many as 12,000 people from a single town, Kulsary in the western region of Atyrau, according to 24.KZ news agency.

The flooding is largely attributed to major rivers originating in Russia bursting their banks. The rivers include the Ural and Tobol, which flow into the Caspian Sea. Water levels in the rivers rose more than 70 centimetres (2 feet, 3 inches) beyond the overflow-point to more than 10 metres (33 feet). Spring flooding is a common occurrence across Russia and Central Asia as winter snows melt, causing rivers to swell, but this year’s floods are clearly far beyond the norm. A big anxiety is, of course, that they could signal a new norm.

On the Russian side of the border, authorities have evacuated at least 14,000 people to date, according to reports. 

One Russian official, Presidential Plenipotentiary in the Urals Region Vladimir Yakushev, has reportedly suggested that Kazakhstan is to blame for the extent of the flooding as the Central Asian nation could have coordinated water discharge more effectively. Kazakh officials, meanwhile, noted that much of the water originated from Russia, with rivers flowing in both directions along the countries' shared border, the world's longest land border.

Drone footage put out by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service depicted scenes of devastation in northern Kazakhstan, with buildings submerged under water and collapsed mud-brick houses. 

In a televised address, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev urged national unity and implored commentators and bloggers not to incite panic. The government, meanwhile, announced the establishment of a specialised agency for the digital management and monitoring of groundwater.

Pope Francis conveyed his sympathy for the victims on April 10 during his weekly audience in St Peter's Square, accompanying his condolences with a prayer.

"I also want to convey to the people of Kazakhstan my spiritual closeness at this time, when a massive flood has affected many regions of the country and caused the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes," he said.

A state of emergency remained in effect in eight of Kazakhstan’s 17 provinces, down from 10 provinces at the end of last week. However, the Kremlin noted that the worst flooding was still ahead—at the very least on the Russian side of the border.  

At an April 8 briefing, Moldir Abdualiyeva, spokesperson for the Kazakh Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, said that water levels in Kazakhstan's rivers were continuing to rise. In East Kazakhstan Region, water reservoirs were currently filled to an average of 62%, with levels expected to reach their peak this week.

The regions most severely affected by the floods in Kazakhstan include Atyrau, Aktobe, Akmola, Kostanai, Eastern Kazakhstan, Northern Kazakhstan and Pavlodar. These regions are particularly vulnerable as they border Russia and are intersected by rivers originating in Russia.

Flooding is not the only climate change-driven natural disaster that Kazakhstan may experience this year. While northern regions of the country are susceptible to flooding coming from rivers originating in Russia, the southern regions of Kazakhstan tend to be directly affected by water shortages in upstream Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Vice Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation of Kazakhstan, Arsen Zhakanbayev, has raised concerns about the possibility of drought affecting Kazakhstan this spring, with the situation similar to what is currently being observed in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, TASS has reported.

The neighbouring Central Asian nations have been experiencing issues with water supplies for the past several years, but the difficulties with water availability appear to be deteriorating.

Zhakanbayev has highlighted how the water volume in Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul reservoir stands 300mn cubic metres (mcm) lower than at this point last year, while the volume in the Chirchik basin was 100 mcm below the level, year on year.