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Ili River


Ili River

Ili River
Ili River
Origin Tekes and Kunges rivers
Mouth Lake Balkhash
Basin countries Kazakhstan and China
Length 1,439 km (894 mi)
Source elevation Tian Shan
Avg. discharge 480 m3/s (17,000 cu ft/s)
Basin area 140,000 km2 (54,000 sq mi)
Map of the Lake Balkhash drainage basin showing the Ili River and its tributaries

The Ili River (Uyghur: ئىلى دەرياسى‎, ULY: Ili deryasi; Kazakh: Іле, İle; Russian: Или; Chinese: 伊犁河; pinyin: Yīlí Hé; Mongolian: Ил, literally "Bareness") is a river in northwestern China (Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) and southeastern Kazakhstan (the Almaty Province).

It is 1,439 kilometres (894 mi) long, 815 kilometres (506 mi) of which is in Kazakhstan. It takes its beginning in eastern Tian Shan from the Tekes and Kunges (or Künes) rivers. The Ili River drains the basin between the Tian Shan and the Borohoro Mountains to the north.

Flowing into Lake Balkhash, the Ili forms a large delta with vast wetland regions of lakes, marshes and thicket vegetation.


  • Etymology 1
  • Chinese region 2
  • Kazakh region 3
  • Ili delta 4
  • Tributaries 5
  • Historical connections 6
  • References 7


Earlier mentions of Ili river is in Mahmud al-Kashgari's dictionary of Turkic languages, the Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk, written in 1072–74. In the book, author defines: Ili, name of a river. Turkic tribes of Yaghma, Tokhsi and Chiglig live on its banks. Turkish countries regard the river as their Jayhoun (Amu Darya) .[1] The name is possibly originated from Uyghur word Il, means hook in English, resembling the river's geographical shape.[2]

Chinese region

Qing bases in the Ili region, ca. 1809. Note that the map is upside down, i.e. the north is at the bottom, and the east is on the left

The upper Ili Valley is separated from the Dzungarian Basin in the north by the Borohoro Mountains, and from the Tarim Basin in the south by the main range of the Tian Shan. This region was the stronghold of the Qing administration in Xinjiang in the late 18th and 19th centuries; it was occupied by Russia from 1871 to 1881, that is, from the Yaqub Beg rebellion until the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881).

Presently, the region forms part of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. The main city of the region, Yining (Kulja), is located on the northern side of the river some 100 kilometres (62 mi) upstream from the international border. Until the early 1900s, the city was commonly known under the same name as the river, 伊犁 (Pinyin: Yīlí; Wade-Giles: Ili). On the southern side, even closer to the international border, Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County is located, which is home to many of the China's Xibe people, who were resettled to this borderland in the 18th century as part of the Manchu garrison.

There are at least two dams on the Ili's right tributary, the Kash River (喀什河) in Nilka County, at and . At least two dams have been constructed on the Ili's left tributary, the Tekes, as well: the Qiapuqihai Hydropower Station (恰甫其海水电站) in Tokkuztara County (), and another smaller dam at , on the border of Tokkuztara and Künes Counties.

Kazakh region

On the Kapchagay Reservoir

The region of Kazakhstan drained by the Ili and its tributaries is known in Kazakh as Zhetysu ('Seven Rivers') and in Russian as Semirechye (meaning the same).

The Kapshagay Hydroelectric Power Plant was constructed between 1965 and 1970[3] near Kapchagay in the middle reaches of the Ili River, forming the Kapchagay Reservoir—an artificial 110 kilometres (68 mi) long lake north of Almaty.

Tamgaly-Tas, some 20 kilometres (12 mi) downstream along Ili River is the site of rock drawings. The name Tamgaly in Kazakh means "painted" or "marked place", Tas means "stone".

Ili delta

Balkhash lake with Ili delta

The Ili River discharges into the southeastern edge of Lake Balkhash, where it forms a large delta of about 8,000 square kilometres (3,100 sq mi). The delta is situated between the Saryesik-Atyrau Desert and the Taukum Desert. Until 1948 the delta was a refuge of the extinct Turan tiger. A reintroduction project of the Siberian tiger to the delta has been proposed. Since the Siberian tiger has turned out to be the closest relative, it has been proposed to introduce this subspecies instead. Large populations of wild boar, which were a main prey base of the Turan tiger, can be still found in the swamps of the delta. There are also some roe deer and in the drier steppes to the south of Lake Balkhash live saiga antelopes and goitered gazelles. A reintroduction of the Buchara deer, which was once an important prey item is under consideration. Buchara deer live in the forests at the Kapchagay Reservoir. Another potential prey species, which is extinct in the area is the Asiatic wild ass. It could be reintroduced in the steppes adjoining the delta.[4] An area of 9,766 square kilometres (3,771 sq mi) within the delta has been designated as a Ramsar Site. This site has 427 species of plants and 345 species of animals, including important populations of rare species, like Dalmatian pelican, goitered gazelle, marbeled polecat, white-headed duck, red-breasted goose, and ship sturgeon. The delta has also become known for its large Wels catfish. The Government of Kazakhstan plans to join the three sanctuaries Balkash, Karoy and Kukan, which are situated in the delta, into one National Park. [5]


Historical connections

The Ili River gave its name to the Ili River treaty of 638 AD, which formalized the division of the Western Turkic Kaganate (552–638 AD) into the Nushibi and the Dulu, and established the Ili River as the border between the two states.[6]

In the 21st century, increasing need for water in both China and Kazakhstan makes the management of the cross-border Ili River a topic of concern for environmentalists and politicians in Kazakhstan, who feel that their country may not get enough water flowing in from China any more.[7]


  1. ^ Mahmud Kashgari, Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk (En: Compendium of the languages of the Turks). Vol I, p124. 1072–1074
  2. ^ Adil Arup, Ili atalghusi heqqide (Etymology of Ili), Journal of Ili Darya, in Uyghur, 2007
  3. ^ Kezer K, Matsuyama H 2006:Decrease of river runoff in the Lake Balkhash basin in Central Asia. Hydrological Processes Vol. 20 Is. 6 Pp 1407–1423
  4. ^ Hartmut Jungius (2010). Feasibility Study on the Possible Restoration of the Caspian Tiger in Central Asia. WWF
  5. ^ Masha Vinokurova (Press officer), Olga Pereladova (Head of the WWF Central Asia Programme): Kazakhstan names large inland delta, WWF Information February, 2012
  6. ^ Zuev Yu.L., The strongest tribe, Almaty, 2004, pp. 55–6,
  7. ^ Stone, Richard (2012-07-27), "For China and Kazakhstan, No Meeting of the Minds on Water" (PDF), Science 337: 405–407 

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