Chapter 4. Trends in Kazakhstan’s sustainable infrastructure investments

Kazakhstan is an upper-middle income country and the richest country in Central Asia, but its economy remains highly dependent on fluctuations in the oil and commodity markets. Recent economic reforms have brought the investment climate closer to international standards on a number of international metrics, making Kazakhstan the main recipients of foreign direct investments in Central Asia (71%), mainly from the European Union and the United States, while the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China represent only 6% and 5% of total FDI inflows.

However, an important bottleneck to Kazakhstan’s economic development is the state of infrastructure systems, particularly in transport. Around 75% of existing transport infrastructure requires replacement or rehabilitation, and USD 292 billion (or 3.93% of GDP) on average needs to be spent on infrastructure until 2040 to support economic and demographic growth.

Kazakhstan has strong institutional capacities for strategic infrastructure planning compared to neighbouring countries, and it has developed a series of long-term planning documents to define its economic and development goals. For instance, Nurly Zhol, Kazakhstan’s main infrastructure development strategy, aims to harness the momentum of regional initiatives such as the BRI and CAREC to transform Kazakhstan into a strategic hub between China and Europe. However, current investment plans in energy and industry are insufficiently aligned with long-term vision of diversifying its economy away from fossil fuels and extractives. For instance, in the energy sector, coal plants still represent more than 15% of planned power plants by capacity, contributing to further carbon lock-in. In industry, most project planned and under construction are still in mining and petrochemical production.

Kazakhstan’s updated Environmental Code, which will make Environmental Impact Assessments and Strategic Environmental Assessments mandatory, is still awaiting adoption. Kazakhstan’s infrastructure investment decisions do not currently benefit from the insights of these assessments or other project-level screening mechanisms. Additionally, there is suboptimal coordination between different government institutions and environmental concerns are not systematically mainstreamed into infrastructure decision-making processes.

Kazakhstan is an upper-middle income country and the richest country in Central Asia. In fact, Kazakhstan is the only non-Baltic former Soviet state to surpass the Russian Federation in per capita GDP. The country’s GDP fell sharply immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but had recovered by the early 2000s by virtue of a sustained period of accelerated growth. In recent years, growth rates have closely followed fluctuations in the oil market, since crude oil is Kazakhstan’s most important export at 45% of total export value (Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2017[3]). Kazakhstan is a service-oriented economy, with services accounting for 61.65% of its GDP compared to 33.52% for industry (including mining) and 4.83% for agriculture (OECD, 2018[4]).

Although the country’s post-independence population contracted throughout the 1990s, its population surpassed its 1991 peak of 16.5 million in 2011 and has since grown to over 18 million, and given its fertility rate of over 2.7 births per woman it is expected to grow further (World Bank, 2019[1]). At 57% of the population, Kazakhstan’s urbanisation is the highest in Central Asia (see Table 4.1).

In 2014, Kazakhstan signed the treaty forming the Eurasian Economic Union along with Belarus and the Russian Federation, and the bloc quickly expanded to include both Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic. 41% of Kazakhstan’s imports come from the Eurasian Economic Union countries, but almost all come from the Russian Federation, which accounts for 38% of total imports (see Figure 4.1(b)). The European Union and the People’s Republic of China are also significant import origins, at 20% and 17% respectively. Kazakhstan’s relationship with the two regional trading blocs is reversed for its exports: 46% of exports go to the European Union, compared to 12% to the Eurasian Economic Union (again, almost exclusively to the Russian Federation: 11% of total exports) (see Figure 4.1(a)). China is Kazakhstan’s single largest export destination country, accounting for 13% of total exports.

Kazakhstan is a net exporter with a positive trade balance of USD 13.6 billion in 2017 (Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2017[3]). Crude petroleum is by far the country’s largest export at 45% of total exports by value. Extractives dominate Kazakhstan’s exports with mineral products (including crude oil) and metals accounting for 61% and 23% of exports respectively, while precious metals make up a further 1.9% (see Figure 4.1(c)). Notably, crude exports (45%) dwarf the share of refined petroleum (2.7%) in exports. Kazakhstan’s imports are not as concentrated in a single category, its main imports are machines (26%), metals (11%), chemical products (11%), mineral products (9%) and transportation (8.8%). Kazakhstan’s trade by value declined between 2012 and 2016 in line with commodity price fluctuations, but recovered slightly in 2017.

Kazakhstan’s investment climate is relatively strong to attract foreign investment. It receives the vast majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Central Asia, at over 71% of the regional total (UNECE, 2019[5]). Kazakhstan is the only country in the region whose bonds have received investment-grade credit ratings from the top agencies. The Netherlands is Kazakhstan’s most important investor, contributing 29% of Kazakhstan’s FDI, followed by the United States (18%), Switzerland (14%), the Russian Federation (6%) and China (5%) (see Figure 4.2).

Similarly to other countries in the region, foreign investors have mostly been interested in Kazakhstan’s mineral resource wealth, with the majority of investment going towards coal, oil and natural gas industries (49.5%), and the metal industry (14.6%). Meanwhile, infrastructure related industries such as transportation (2.6%) and renewable energy (2.2%) receive a smaller share of foreign direct investment (see Figure 4.3).

The government has made improving Kazakhstan’s investment climate and business environment a national priority, and its recent reforms have brought it closer to international standards on a number of metrics. For instance, Kazakhstan has removed foreign equity restrictions in air transport and fixed-line telecommunications, clearing the path for foreign ownership of firms. It has also become easier to hire foreign nationals in recent years, especially in the lead-up to Kazakhstan’s admission to the World Trade Organisation in 2015. The government has also sought to improve the protection of foreign investments and provide effective dispute resolution mechanisms. Its simplified procedures relating to licencing and setting up a business have led to improved rankings in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report: Kazakhstan was 35th out of 190 countries in 2016 compared to 51st just one year before (IBRD, 2019[8]). Recent legislative changes, including a new public private partnership law and improved concession legislation, are expected to boost investment in infrastructure development.

However, Kazakhstan still needs to implement governance reforms, particularly on transparency and accountability mechanisms. Policies supporting entrepreneurship, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and skills development are also insufficient, as shown by the SME sector’s persistently modest share of the economy (OECD, 2018[9]). Kazakhstan’s legislative and regulatory frameworks still hamper efforts to attract FDI since they are not fully conducive to competition, and state monopolies still dominate certain parts of the energy sector (oil transport, electricity transmission) and the transport sector (ports, airports, railways). Unaddressed corruption and corporate governance shortcomings also continue to concern investors. Kazakhstan’s efforts to improve the corporate responsibility of its businesses, including through awareness promotion of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, are key not only for an improved investment climate, but also for the promotion of firms that engage in sustainable business practices. Kazakhstan has made headway in improving the quality of investment in extractives and has expressed interest in improving procedures for taking environmental considerations into account, but human rights and labour relations remain difficult topics (OECD, 2017[10]). However, Kazakhstan’s updated Environmental Code, which would make the use of key tools for determining environmental consequences such as Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) obligatory, is still awaiting adoption.

Unlike several other Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan’s debt levels to external creditors are not considered risky and it maintains an investment-grade credit rating. Kazakhstan is a key participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but unlike many other participants, Kazakhstan has financed most of its BRI-related infrastructure projects with its own budget (Emerging Markets Forum, 2019[11]). Kazakhstan has used BRI-linked Chinese finance as a complement to fit into its planning by linking it to its Nurly Zhol infrastructure development strategy (see section 4.3 for more information on Kazakhstan’s strategic documents).

Kazakhstan’s total emissions only account for 0.68% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (World Bank, 2019[1]). While Kazakhstan’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped sharply following the breakup of the Soviet Union (by 50.9%), they have consistently risen since the early 2000s (see Figure 4.4). Kazakhstan is now on track to surpass their pre-independence peak, with greenhouse gas emissions only 1.6% smaller in 2012 compared to the levels in 1991. Over the same period, Kazakhstan’s economy shrank by a third (1990-1995) and then steadily recovered, surpassing its 1990 by 2005 and, by 2017, doubling in size compared to 1990. As a result, the emissions intensity of Kazakhstan’s economy decreased from 3.9 kgCO2e per USD in 1990 to 2.2 kgCO2e per USD in 2012 (World Bank, 2019[1]). Over the same period, the country’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions decreased from 22.8 tCO2e in 1990 to 21.8 tCO2e by 2012 (World Bank, 2019[1]).

The energy sector is responsible for 78% of Kazakhstan’s emissions, while agriculture and industrial processes account for much smaller shares at only 7% and 9% respectively (Government of Kazakhstan, 2017[12]). Kazakhstan’s reliance on coal contributes to its rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution problems. Kazakhstan’s agriculture and mining sectors are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as increasingly frequent hot weather and severe droughts threaten the availability of water (UNECE, 2019[5]).

Compared to other countries in the region, Kazakhstan has relatively high-quality existing infrastructure (see Figure 4.5).

Kazakhstan’s infrastructure needs are increasing in line with its expanding economy and growing population. Assuming its GDP grows at 4.3% per year, Kazakhstan will need to spend USD 292 billion (or 3.93% of GDP) on average in infrastructure until 2040 (see Figure 4.6). Compared to current levels of spending, this translates into an investment gap of USD 84 billion (1.11 % of GDP) across all sectors, but it is more prevalent in cross-border infrastructure, energy and road transport (Global Infrastructure Hub, n.d.[14]). Not only is new infrastructure needed, but also proper maintenance and quality control of the existing assets is necessary. Approximately 75% of existing infrastructure requires replacement or rehabilitation (ADB, n.d.[15]).

Out of the 195.6 billion USD of investments tracked between 2000 and 2019, energy projects account for just over half of Kazakhstan’s planned and under construction infrastructure projects at around USD 112.5 billion USD (58%), while transport projects make up 20%, manufacturing 14%, and mining and quarrying 7%. Water projects, which include both water supply projects as well as irrigation and water management are limited to only USD 471 million (see Figure 4.7).

Kazakhstan’s annual freight traffic exceeds 200 billion tonne-km, which accounts for more than 80% of regional1 freight. Kazakhstan’s strategic geographic position partially explains this concentration of freight traffic, since most goods bound for Central Asia from Europe and Asia need to pass through Kazakhstan. However, to maintain current network performance in terms of trade volume-capacity ratios, Kazakhstan’s road capacity must reach 151% of today’s levels by 2030 and 350% by 2050. For rail, Kazakhstan already has more than the required capacity for 2030, but needs to reach 138% of current levels by 2050 (ITF, 2019[16]).

In the transport sector, Kazakhstan’s planned infrastructure investments consist primarily of road projects, which account for 81% of investments (USD 34.4 billion). Rail accounts for a further 16%, while intermodal and air projects make up the remaining 2% and 1% respectively (see Figure 4.8). Both road and rail projects feature among the largest investments in the pipeline (see Table 4.2). Greenfield developments and refurbishments both figure among the largest road projects, while most large investments in rail are in modernisation of existing rail lines.

Among these projects, Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol infrastructure development strategy explicitly names two – the Centre-East road corridor between Astana and Ust-Kamenogorsk (Öskemen) and the Centre-West corridor between Shalkar and Kandyagash – as priorities. The Centre-West Corridor is expected to provide jobs and stimulate the development of small and medium enterprises. It will provide a main gateway to the west through the Caspian Sea and Caucasus to Europe, and to the Pacific port city of Lianyungang.

In the road sector, the focus remains on the domestic road network, which comprises six international corridors with a total length of about 8 250 km that serve as international transit routes between China, the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation, onwards to Europe. Such projects are also part of international agreements, such as Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), however Kazakhstan has yet to fully exploit its strategic position to facilitate smooth trade across border and engage in regional and global value chains.

Kazakhstan seeks to assert itself as a regional transport hub, and given that four of CAREC’s six corridors pass through its territory, it is strategically placed for such a role. The most important of these corridors are Corridor 1 – from China to the Russian Federation and Europe via the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan, and Corridor 2 – which runs from east to west between China and the Caucasus via the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In the railway sector, Kazakhstan aims to improve express train services for both passenger and freight transportation between major cities, but more private investment is needed. Although there is some increasing evidence of private provision of transport and services, including through public-private partnerships (PPPs), it is currently very limited. Only recently, the Almaty Ring Road PPP is the first large project outside of the oil and gas sector financed with private capital (IFC, 2014[17]).

Projects of this kind are vital for Kazakhstan to improve its infrastructure, in turn reducing transport costs which otherwise are very high. It costs around 177 USD for one tonne of goods to reach 20% of global GDP from Kazakhstan, meanwhile in Germany the same access can be achieved at a much smaller cost of approximately 30 USD (ITF, 2019[16]).

In the energy sector, the entire population has access to electricity, and its electric power transmission and distribution systems are relatively better than other countries in the region, leading to losses of only 4.9% of generated electricity compared to 17.1% in Tajikistan and 19.7% in the Kyrgyz Republic (World Economic Forum, 2017[13]). With its large reserves of hydrocarbons and robust oil and gas industries, Kazakhstan does not face the same energy security and self-sufficiency concerns as its neighbours. It is a net exporter of coal (11.77 Mtoe in 2017), oil (64.6 Mt in 2016) and natural gas (6.43 Mtoe in 2017). Its electricity exports and imports are approximately balanced: Kazakhstan exported as much as it imported in 2015, whereas its net exports equalled 0.11 Mtoe in 2016 (IEA, 2018[23]). Coal-fired power plants (primarily using low-quality coal with a high ash content) generate two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s electricity, with the remaining third derived from natural gas (21%), hydro (11%) and oil (2%) (see Figure 4.9). Renewable sources jointly account for less than 1% of electricity generation, with 275 GWh of wind power and 89 GWh solar photovoltaic.

In terms of investment projects in electricity generation under construction and planned, Figure 4.10 shows that 38% of the investments by capacity are in wind power plants (or 1 589 MW), followed by solar PV with 26% (or 1 088 MW) and coal-fired plants with 15% (636 MW). Natural gas-fired electric power plants and hydro-electric power plants account for 11 and 9% respectively of planned investment projects in electricity generation. Most of Kazakhstan’s hotspot energy projects link to the upstream oil and gas industry and distribution networks (

Table 4.3).

One of the country’s largest projects currently under construction is the Central Asia–China Gas Pipeline (Kazakhstan section), which is expected to be the largest gas transmission system in Central Asia. It will have significant implications on Kazakhstan’s energy security. In the oil industry, the expansion of the Tengiz oil field will increase existing production capacity by 43% (NS Energy, n.d.[24]). The overwhelming dominance of the oil and gas industry in the energy sector’s planned infrastructure projects is in line with Kazakhstan’s historical reliance on its hydrocarbon reserves. However, evidence of continued oil-based development contradicts the country’s economic diversification goals as expressed in Kazakhstan’s strategic documents, including the country’s energy and economic diversification goals outlined in its key strategic documents like Kazakhstan-2050 and the Concept for a Transition towards a Green Economy.

The industry sector’s infrastructure pipeline is about two-thirds manufacturing projects (64%, see Figure 4.11) and one-third mining and quarrying (36%, see Figure 4.12). This is not in line with Kazakhstan’s stated priority of economic diversification (see section 4.3 for more information on Kazakhstan’s strategic documents).

Most of the manufacturing projects are in petrochemical production or mining (see Table 4.4) and target China and the Russian Federation as export markets. For example, a significant project under construction is the Tymlai Mining, Chemical and Metallurgical Complex, a USD 5 billion mining and processing plant at the Tymlai ore field and a chemical metallurgical plant in the special economic zone (SEZ) of Pavlodar. The plant is of strategic importance to supply raw materials for industries using steel and titanium dioxide. Another significant project that is planned is the production of the base oil production plant in Turkestan Oblast, which will produce 183 000 tonnes of export base oil annually for export.

Given the limited number of higher value-added manufacturing among Kazakhstan’s planned projects, current investment plans do not appear to be in line with national government’s long-term developmental aspirations for a competitive economy, which aims at moving up the value chain and away from a reliance on exported raw materials. According to the ADB, only around 7.8% of Kazakhstan’s exports is made up of foreign inputs. Compared to a neighbouring hydrocarbon exporter, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan displays low level of integration in international production networks, and there is significant scope to better integrate Kazakhstan’s economy into global value chains (GVCs) (ADB, 2018[27]).

Kazakhstan’s population is the least exposed to unsafe drinking water in the region at 8.8%, compared to 13.3% in the Kyrgyz Republic and 12.4% in Tajikistan. Kazakhstan’s water supply is slightly more reliable than Tajikistan’s (rated 61 out of 100 compared to 60.4) and considerably more reliable than the Kyrgyz Republic’s or Mongolia’s (rated 52.5 and 52.4 respectively). However, it is less reliable than in Azerbaijan and Georgia, whose water supply systems are rated 65.7 and 67.5 respectively (World Economic Forum, 2017[13]).

Kazakhstan seeks to further improve its water supply systems and therefore has numerous under construction and planned water projects which are estimated to be worth USD 471.1 million. Out of the large volume of projects 56.3% of them will focus specifically on developing Kazakhstan’s water supply and sanitation. The remaining 43.7% of projects aim to aid with the progression of irrigation and water management in the country (see Figure 4.13).

These projects are reflected in Kazakhstan’s development strategies, for example Kazakhstan-2050 and the Concept for the Transition towards a Green Economy aim to solve problems associated with water supply and irrigation water, in order to increase Kazakhstan’s water security. More specific strategies such as the State Programme on Development of the Agro-Industrial Complex for the period 2017-2021 intend to increase water recycling and recirculation in the industrial sector as well as decreasing overall water use by 2021 (see Table 4.5).

Kazakhstan’s government has established long-term development strategies such as Kazakhstan-2050 and Concept for the Transition towards a Green Economy (which contains goals to 2020, 2030 and 2050) (see Table 4.5). These strategies define quantitative objectives, with a focus on growth and economic diversification away from Kazakhstan’s historical reliance on extractive industries. Kazakhstan’s ambition, however, has not translated into actions on the same scale as its goals. For example, the Concept’s goal to increase the share of wind and solar in electricity generation to 3% by 2020 will clearly not be met, since these sources still account for far less than 1% of electricity generation today. Similarly, the Concept’s goal of decreasing CO2 emissions in the energy sector to 2012 levels by 2020 looks unlikely, with 2016 levels 10% higher than in 2012 and trending upwards.

A significant gap exists between goals and efforts made to achieve them, and directing more resources to screening mechanisms that would ensure that project-level infrastructure investment decisions contribute to long-term development and climate objectives would allow Kazakhstan to achieve its stated ambitions. Project-level screening mechanisms should also be complemented with systems-level planning for infrastructure planning, to ensure that infrastructure investment decisions align with national sustainable development plans.

Kazakhstan’s existing legislation clearly defines a three-tier system of strategic planning documents. Long-term national development strategies like Kazakhstan-2050 occupy the top tier, and its objectives are cascaded through lower-tier mid-term strategies (Strategic Development Plan to 2025), five-year programmes, sectoral strategies and subnational development plans. The clarity and simplicity of the system ease communication of government priorities to both citizens and investors.

Kazakhstan’s primary infrastructure development strategy, Nurly Zhol, its State Programme for Industrial-Innovative Development 2015-2019 and the Concept for the Transition towards a Green Economy 2013-2020 define budgets for their implementation. Nurly Zhol includes a list of projects and policies along with estimated funds required, the State Programme defines an annual budget for the programme and the Concept estimates the cost of measures it includes.

Despite the advanced development of its strategic planning system, Kazakhstan does not yet legally require strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) of strategies’ potential impacts. The government should develop legislation in line with the UNECE Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment to the Espoo Convention. Kazakhstan, with the help of UNECE, began work on legislation related to SEA in its new Environmental Code in 2018, but it has not yet been adopted.

This shift to increasing environmental considerations within Kazakhstan’s government could potentially begin by evaluating the implementation of the Concept for the Transition to a Green Economy, as its first phase of targets end in 2020, which provides an excellent opportunity to reassess and revise the Concept. The government is currently preparing the revised draft, which is supposed to include Kazakhstan’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the OECD Green Growth Declaration. The government could consider seizing the opportunity to integrate all of its environment- and climate-related strategic documents into the revised Concept to produce a single, comprehensive strategy. The Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources, formed in 2019, has already begun developing a national strategy on low-carbon development.

The institutional capacity of Kazakhstan’s government bodies is greater than in neighbouring countries, but better coordination mechanisms are necessary to create an integrated infrastructure planning system that could screen and prioritise infrastructure projects according to long-term development and climate goals. The adoption of the new Environmental Code making EIAs and SEAs mandatory could be a first step towards such a system.

Until recently, the institutional set-up of Kazakhstan’s government lacked robust impartial state bodies on environment and water. The ministries currently responsible for Kazakhstan’s environmental protection and water policies were the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Agriculture respectively, where they faced strong competing interests from powerful industries in the energy and agriculture sectors.

In June 2019, Kazakhstan underwent several institutional reconfigurations, one of which was the creation of a new Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources comprising the environment- and water-related divisions formerly housed in the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Agriculture. It is also partly responsible for the mining sector, a portfolio it shares with the Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development, which remains in charge of licencing (The Astana Times, 2019[29]). This new independent institution could provide an opportunity to better mainstream environmental concerns into mining and energy decisions (, 2019[30]).


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← 1. Excluding Turkmenistan.

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