Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian countries. More than two-thirds are covered by deserts and semi-deserts; the rest is mainly steppes and low hills, with some high mountain ranges at the eastern and southeastern borders.
Kazakhstan has 48 800 lakes and reservoirs. The largest inland body of water is Lake Balkhash (18 810 km²), which consists of a western part with fresh water and an eastern part with salt water. The average depth of the lake is only six meters. The country has eight river basins with over 7 700 rivers. The biggest ones are the Syr Darya, the Irtysh and the Ishim (flowing into Russia), the Ural (flowing from Russia), Chuo and Talas (flowing from Kyrgyzstan). Seven of the eight basins are transboundary. The main water inflow comes from Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia and Uzbekistan. Almost half of the surface water available in Kazakhstan (about 100.5 km³) originates in one or more of its neighbouring countries.
The Kazakh part of the Syr Darya Basin stretches along 1 127 km from the Shardara reservoir on the border to Uzbekistan, through the southeastern part of the country to the Aral Sea. Seventeen percent of the Kazakh population lives in this basin, most in rural areas. Thus, only a small part of the country belongs to the Aral Sea Basin (345 500 km² of 2 224 400 km²). Nevertheless, being a downstream country, Kazakhstan relies on timely water discharge from the upstream water reservoirs in Kyrgyzstan and the passage through Uzbekistan during the growing period. As these releases could not always be ensured, Kazakhstan built the Koksaray reservoir. With this additional reservoir just downstream from the Shardara reservoir, it is able to store water released in winter until spring and reduce harmful winter floods downstream, as well as dependence on upstream water releases. While these measures have eased the situation at the lower reaches of the Syr Darya in Kazakhstan, they present a risk for the Aydar-Arnasay lakes system in Uzbekistan. This is a wetland that has emerged from overflow of water in winter from the Shardara and drainage water and serves as an important habitat for water birds. In addition, a newly built reservoir allowed Uzbekistan to use the overflow water for irrigation. With the Koksaray reservoir, Kazakhstan can store the previously released water itself for later usage or flow into the Aral Sea, putting this newly created but ecologically important wetland at risk. Therefore, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have reached an agreement on an annual minimum flow. Kazakhstan has undertaken considerable efforts to revive the Northern Aral Sea (see p.20/21). For Kazakhstan, the situation in the Ili-Balkhash Basin is of much greater concern than that of the Syr Darya. This basin is shared with China, which is increasing its water usage, putting the fragile ecological balance of Lake Balkhash at risk.
Kazakhstan is endowed with abundant natural resources, including significant deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium, chromium, lead, zinc, manganese, and copper. Oil and gas production have increased rapidly over the last decade and, with minerals, provide most of the revenues. In contrast, agricultural production accounts for only 6% of GDP (2009) but for 15% of the workforce (2008). Arable land constitutes 8.4% of the land. It is important in the poor, rural south of the country, where cotton and rice production take place.[UNECE 2008, UNECE 2011, WDI, AQUASTAT.]