June 16th, 2014 Sections: Chui, Geography, Soviet Union
Construction of the BChK

Construction of the BChK   (

Sunday marked two Professional Holidays here in Kyrgyzstan: Fire Services Day and Water Resources Day.

Water Resources Day is celebrated annually on the third Sunday in June – and has been since 1995.  It replaced a Soviet “holiday”, the Day of the Meliorator, which had first been established in 1981.  It’s an occasion when attention is focused on the six thousand or so people employed in the Republic’s system of Water Resources.

Kyrgyzstan has abundant water resources: about 45 billion cubic meters per year of surface stream flow, 13 billion cubic meters of potential groundwater reserves, 1,745 billion cubic meters of lake water and 650 billion cubic meters of ice.  Of course, at the present time there is a lot of attention being paid to the question of the country’s glaciers which seem, as elsewhere in the world, to be in retreat.

There are more than 3,000 rivers and streams, that make up the seven major basins: the Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Chu, Talas, Ili, and Tarim rivers … and the Lake Issyk-Kul hollow.

Agriculture comprises one of the largest sectors of the economy and as more than 90% of crop production in the country is grown on irrigated land, the so-called “gold fund“, the management of these water resources is of particular significance.

As it happens, the first reservoirs built in the Soviet period, (such as the Orto Tokoi reservoir just outside Kochkor), were not constructed for the generation of electricity, but to ensure the supply of water for irrigation.  

We often think of the reservoirs constructed in Kyrgyzstan as part of the energy industry – the water being held back in order to drive the hydro electric power stations … such as the Toktogul power station that sits across the Naryn River.  Although that may be it’s main purpose, the dam across the Naryn River holding back vast amounts of water is also used to regulate the flow of water downstream and is of vital importance for the irrigation systems in Uzbekistan.  This makes it a possible bone of contention between the two countries … as both countries rely on the steady flow of water – but for purposes – and at different times of the year. 

One of the biggest water resource management projects in the country was the Bolshoi Chui Canal – the large Chui Canal – more affectionately known locally as the Be-Che-Ka.  In fact, it’s not just one canal – but three interconnected and related canals: The Eastern, Western and Southern Be-Che-Ka’s.

Irrigation has always been an important element of agriculture in Central Asia.  Most of the schemes, however, were local and relatively small scale – many small canals serving individual plots.

The introduction of Collectivization by the Soviets brought about a radical reconstruction of the system.  Plans were laid for an expansion of the crops, such as: grain, cotton and sugar beet as well growing feed for livestock … all of this was to require a significant expansion of irrigated land … which in turn required a large number of new installations.

Between 1925 and 1940, some 16 million rubles were allocated to the work – mainly for the renovation of the existing structures, but also for adding some new ones.

Whereas today a specialist firm of engineers would be contracted to complete the work, the centuries old custom and practice of the such works being constructed by the local population was emplyed.  work was performed by the general population, working manually, with shovels and carrying the earth to carts drawn by oxen and horses.

At the end of 1940, some 723,000 hectares of land was under irrigation and in the Spring of the following year, work began on the most ambitious project thus far – the construction of the Be-Che-Ka.  On March 16th, the decision was taken to construct the Orto Tokoi reservoir and the first stages of the Canal system

Work began on the 147km of the Western Canal – with thirty five thousand people removing over six million cubic meters of earth in 40 days, all by hand, with another 20,000 working on a related project on the steep mountain slopes rather than the floor of the river valley.    Some twenty five new irrigation channels were dug stretching almost 300 kilometers and bringing  new land under possible cultivation – some seventy thousand hectares here in Kyrgyzstan and another thousand in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

Then came Operation Barbarosa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the start of the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known here).

Only something like 40% of the planned work had been completed at the time hostilities broke out, and it would be another two years before the first sate of the Western branch of the canal would be finished, and another decade before the infrastructure to bring water to the newly established industrial complexes in Frunze (Bishkek) would finally be completed.

At about the same time as the Western Canal was being finished, in 1958, work began on the 100 kilometers of the Eastern Canal … bringing another 41,500 hectares into production.

The Southern branch of the canal was started in 1976 and from the Issyk Ata valley through the southern reaches of Bishkek … and it was intended to extend as far as Merke in Kazakhstan … but at the moment, it is still incomplete.

Irrigation is still of vital importance and many of the irrigation channels throughout the country are in need of repair … and several projects funded by the international donor community are address this issue.


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