High mountains cover about 65% of Kyrgyzstan, which is located at the juncture of the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains. More than 3 500 rivers have their origin in its territory, which is divided into six river basins. The biggest part of the country belongs to the Syr Darya Basin. Its tributaries are the Naryn (807 km), the Kara Darya, and the Chatkal, which flow from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan. Other transboundary rivers are the Chu and Talas, flowing into Kazakhstan, and the Aksu feeding the Tarim River in China.
There are 1 923 lakes in Kyrgyzstan, more than 80% of which are located above 3 000m. Lake Issyk-Kul-located at 1 608 m in the Tian Shan mountains-has a surface area of 6 249 km². It is the country's largest lake and the second-largest alpine lake in the world. Glaciers occupy about 4% of the country. Seasonal snowmelt and runoff from melted glaciers account for up to 80% of the rivers' total flow.
Due to the mountainous topography, only 7% of the total land area is used for crop cultivation, while 44% is used as pasture for livestock. Animal husbandry is a significant part of the agricultural economy. Most cultivated land is irrigated so the agricultural sector consumes more than 90% of the water. The main cropland areas are the Ferghana Valley and the Talas and Chu provinces. Main crops include fodder, wheat, corn, rice, tobacco, cotton, vegetables and fruits. The main agricultural export products are cotton and tobacco.
Though the share of agriculture in GDP decreased from 37% in 1991 to 29% in 2008, it remains important, especially for the two-thirds of the population living in rural areas. The agricultural sector employs 36% of the labour force.
Nevertheless, the priority water usage is the production of electricity. Although to date only a small portion of their potential is used, dams provide more than 90% of the country's power. Kyrgyzstan has also been exporting 2–2.5 billion kWh/year to China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Hydropower plants produce 10.7 billion kWh of electricity per year. The five biggest plants, which are all located on the Naryn, produce 97% of the country's hydropower.
Thirteen artificial reservoirs with a storage capacity of more than 20 km³ have been created to regulate the water flow, mainly for the purpose of hydropower production, irrigation and flood protection. The biggest reservoir is the Toktogul (see page 18). Other dams and reservoirs are the Kirov on the Talas River and the Orto-Say on the Chu River. When constructed during the Soviet Union era, these reservoirs were designed not for the benefit of Kyrgyzstan, but for irrigation in the downstream republics. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan lost 21 100 ha of cultivated land when the dams were built. After independence, it could use and sell the electricity from the hydropower plants, but also had to bear the full cost of operating and maintaining the dams. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan has regularly requested fair cost-sharing mechanisms.
After the delivery of coal and gas from the downstream countries ceased in the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan increased its water discharge in winter to replace them. In addition to the existing power plants built in the Soviet period, several new ones have been constructed and more are planned. The biggest ones are Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2 on the Naryn River. The 360 MW Kambarata-2 project started in 1986. After independence, construction slowed as financing dried up. But thanks to a Russian loan, the first unit began operating in November 2010. The construction of Kambarata-1 is underway in cooperation with the Russian energy company INTER RAO UES. Its capacity is expected to reach 1900 MW and it will cost about $2 billion. In addition, there are more than 200 small hydropower plants. Many of them were built in Soviet times, and some were added after independence with the support of international assistance in order to ensure energy supply for small and remote villages.[Antipova et al. 2002, Giese et al. 2004, Sehring 2009, UNECE 2008, WDI.]