Kyrgyzstan’s capital is parched.
Since the start of this month, residents of several neighborhoods of Bishkek have had their tap water severely rationed. Public baths and swimming pools have closed their doors, as have car washes.
There is nothing new about this, but the crisis this year feels particularly intense.
The shortages were felt first in southern areas of the city. The rationing was then extended to the northern and eastern outskirts.
Aigul Ilyasova, a 38-year-old mother of four living in the Archa-Beshik neighborhood of southwest Bishkek, said her family started noticing problems as early as the end of April. Ilyasova spoke to Eurasianet on condition that her name be changed to preserve her anonymity.
To begin with, Ilyasova and her neighbors complained to their nearest local government office, which then agreed to start providing water according to a schedule: from noon until 11 p.m.
“When that happened, we were able to wash and clean our clothes. But from the middle of May, they stopped supplying water as agreed in the schedule. We kept going to the aiyl okmotu (local government administration), but they just lied to us and sent us water trucks full of dirty water,” Ilyasova told Eurasianet.
Ilyasova said that even though the water being trucked in is not suitable for drinking and cooking, she and her neighbors still line up for it. Often it runs out before everybody can get their share. When that happens, the last resort is to buy bottled water.
“Soon our children will be completely covered in fleas. We will be able to collect and sell them,” quipped one of Ilyasova’s neighbors with a chuckle. The neighbor declined to be interviewed.
Ilyasova spoke to Eurasianet on June 8 at a wildcat rally mounted by Archa-Beshik residents driven to despair by their plight. In a desperate bid to press higher authorities into addressing their problem, they blocked a main road leading out of Bishkek.
Municipal authorities have promised they will restore regular water deliveries within the coming month, but fixing the broader problem is going to require heavy lifting.
Water is supplied to Bishkek homes from 37 water storage reservoirs. The largest of them is called Orto-Alysh and accounts for 40 percent of the water piped into residential areas.
City hall has blamed this year’s problems on a particularly cool spring. Because the glaciers did not thaw in time, water levels at Orto-Alysh dropped to acutely low levels.
Pinning the blame on natural factors may be missing the larger picture, however. Out of those 37 storage reservoirs, fully 24 were built in Soviet times in the expectation that around 650,000 people would live in Bishkek. The other 13 were built after independence, but they are already being utilized at full capacity.
The population of Bishkek has grown rapidly – up to around 1.15 million at last count – since the early 2000s. The outskirts are a constellation of 50 or so residential areas hooked into the water distribution network. Another 32 villages in the surrounding Chui region are dependent on the same grid.
When explaining the shortage crisis, officials evince transparent despair at how the city has grown so rapidly and chaotically, often as a result of entire neighborhoods getting built on unlawfully appropriated land.
In a briefing to reporters earlier this week, deputy Bishkek mayor Zhyrgalbek Shamyraliyev said that many of those neighborhoods simply hooked themselves to the water grid without going through the proper procedure.
“Archa-Beshik was connected to the water grid without a formal project or any permits. It's hard for us to determine which exact part of the network they're even connected to,” Shamyraliyev said.
Up the spout
Bishkek is not just expanding outward. It is getting taller too. Soviet-built one-story houses are constantly being demolished to make way for towering apartment blocks designed to pack in large numbers of inhabitants. The blocks have popularly come to be known as “cheloveyniks” – a Russian-language play on words that merges “human” and “anthill.”
According to the city hall, fully 7,000 new customers were added to the water distribution grid in 2022 alone.
And it may well become a problem that the south of Bishkek has, because of its proximity to the mountains, become a particularly favored spot for development in recent years. The new residents will also likely rely on the already overstretched Orto-Alysh reservoir.
“Thirty new high-rise buildings are being built in the south of the city. Tomorrow they will also need water. The city is expanding every year, and consumption will grow with it,” Shamyraliyev said.
Dwindling resources are further stressed by commercial activity. Water suitable for drinking is amply used for irrigation by farmers in the Bishkek hinterland, as well as by car wash companies.
Officials say that those people should by rights use what is known as technical water, which is to say minimally processed and non-potable water. But Bishkek’s water grid has not been built in such a way as to be able to supply different customers with varying types of water in accordance with its end-use.
“We now see that people are [on average] consuming up to 500 liters of water per day, when the norm is for 170 liters per person,” said Shamyraliyev. “We need to consider the development of a network of technical wells.”
Lack of liquidity
The profligacy is attributable in no small measure to the fact that only 12 percent of Bishkek households have water meters installed. The remainder pay flat rates.
That arrangement is clearly untenable. As of June 1, metered customers pay the equivalent of around $0.10 per cubic meter of water (the rate rose from $0.08). Unmetered households pay a rate calculated on the basis of the presumed 170-liter usage average cited by Shamyraliyev and the number of registered residents at a given property. Since households often include multiple unregistered inhabitants, the bills almost never reflect real usage.
City hall now plans to enforce metering universally, which it hopes will stem waste and generate additional revenue.
That money could then be parlayed in part into overhauling the network of distribution pipes, of which anywhere up to 70 percent is deemed to be in a critical condition.
More money would furthermore enable city hall to retain trained technicians. Employees at the Bishkek Vodokanal water utility company on average make around 20,000 soms ($230) a month.
Shamyraliyev argues that most people are more than able to afford higher utility rates.
“In stores, we buy half-liter bottles of water for 20 soms ($0.23). And people pay 1,200 soms ($13.70) for the internet, and hundreds of soms for their mobile communications,” he said. “The tariffs as they are do not cover our costs.”
In the medium- to long-term, though, city hall says it will need up to 500 million soms to build three new reservoir sites.
But when lawmakers were asked to greenlight that money at a June 8 extraordinary session of parliament, they only agreed to fund one reservoir in a village southwest of Bishkek at a cost of 150 million soms.
Deputies then directed city hall to raise the issue with the government. One lawmaker, Zhanar Akayev, complained that the national authorities seemed more interested in splurging on other less pressing matters. He alluded specifically to plans to build an entire so-called “eco-city,” to be named Asman, on the shores of the Issyk-Kul Lake for $1 billion.
“In Bishkek, there is no water in summer, there is smog in winter, there are traffic jams on the roads, public transport is dead, and there aren’t enough schools and kindergartens in the new-build neighborhoods,” Akayev said. “They want to spend billions [on Asman]. But wouldn’t it be good to sort out Bishkek first?”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.