Wednesday, 05 December 2001

ECOLOGICAL SECURITY: AN URGENT NECESSITY FOR CENTRAL ASIA

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By Jyldyz Sydygalieva (12/5/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: During the Soviet era, the Kyrgyz Republic was a major source of uranium for both military and industrial purposes. There are approximately 130 sites in Kyrgyzstan containing about 620 million cubic meters of waste products that were buried during the Soviet time, mostly from the mining industry. About half of these sites contain waste from nuclear production - an industry that most Kyrgyz citizens were not aware had existed within their territory because it was kept a secret by the Soviet authorities.

BACKGROUND: During the Soviet era, the Kyrgyz Republic was a major source of uranium for both military and industrial purposes. There are approximately 130 sites in Kyrgyzstan containing about 620 million cubic meters of waste products that were buried during the Soviet time, mostly from the mining industry. About half of these sites contain waste from nuclear production - an industry that most Kyrgyz citizens were not aware had existed within their territory because it was kept a secret by the Soviet authorities. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan faced the disastrous consequences of the large quantities of uranium waste without outside help. Since the disappearance of the common economic system there has been almost no work done to make tailing storehouses safe. Landslides, floods, earthquakes and an increase in the level of groundwater caused harm to the tailings. As a result, the majority of dumps and storehouses in Kyrgyzstan are currently in critical condition and there is a serious threat that the complete destruction of these burials could lead to the radioactive contamination of huge areas in the region. At present the main "sore spot" is the territory located close to Mailu-Suu city. There are 23 tailing storehouses with a volume of 1374 thousand cubic meters and 18 uranium ores dumps with a volume of 845 thousand cubic meters, which are located dangerously near to populated areas, highways and cattle-driving ranges. Tailing ponds, formerly held to legal standards, are sometimes not even maintained and don't have any warning signs. Uranium tailings located in the area of Kaji-Sai village are also a matter of great concern. Burials of "invisible death" with a volume of 150 thousand cubic meters are placed just a mile away from lake Issuk-Kul, the pearl of Central Asia. Tailing storage in Min-Kush, Shekaftar, Kara-Balta, Kyzyl-Jar and other towns are also in unsafe condition, polluting groundwater and the atmosphere. It is necessary to underline that the danger coming from these tailings has one particular feature - the environment and human body is being contaminated slowly and invisibly, creating irreversible changes in nature, flora and fauna.

IMPLICATIONS: The Kyrgyz Parliament recently has passed a draft law on dealing with hazardous waste disposal sites located in the country. The draft law obliges the government to reduce the amount of waste production, to reinforce and properly secure the current containers and sites, some of which already pose a threat to the environment, and to provide for the proper handling and storage of waste. Kyrgyzstan also has a national plan for preserving the environment, developed with experts from the World Bank. The plan calls for building storehouses for radioactive waste products and waste products from mercury and antimony processing. Kyrgyzstan is a nuclear - free country and its policy is determined to a considerable extent by relationships with its nearest neighbors - Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states, as well as its largest trading partners, China and Russia. The problem of utilization of nuclear materials and industrial nuclear wastes in the Kyrgyz Republic and Central Asia is closely tied up with the problem of ecological catastrophe in the Aral basin. In spite of the common view of Kyrgyzstan as the "Island of democracy" in Central Asia, the republic is currently experiencing a heavy economic, political and ecological crisis. One of the essential ecological threats to the region is tailing storage of nuclear wastes and the danger of its spreading across the region. About six thousand hectares have been contaminated to different extents by radioactive wastes with radiation between 130-740 micro x-rays per hour. The critical condition of tailings could be a cause of ecological catastrophes in the republic, as well as in Uzbekistan and the Aral sea basin. Taking into account the necessity of providing a more safe environment, Central Asian states are trying to create a Nuclear-Free Zone in the region as an important element to improve regional security and to start the rehabilitation of territories contaminated by radioactive wastes. The Kyrgyz Republic is actively working to create such zone and now Kyrgyzstan's diplomats face the task of accelerating this process that has a huge international importance. The creating of a Nuclear Free Zone does not harm the interests of non-nuclear states joining such a zone, and is an ideal basis to ensure ecological security in the region.

CONCLUSIONS: Today the Central Asian states are going through a complicated and difficult period in their development, experiencing problems related to the reformation of economic and political systems. Along with this, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan pay much attention to solving ecological problems simultaneously with economic problems, realizing the importance of issues related to providing ecological security in the region. The important geopolitical position of the Central Asian region and its economic and scientific potential, creates favorable conditions to promote the region to a number of global leaders in the area of ecological security issues. At present the countries of Central Asia are forming a basis for future stability, security and economical development. They are trying to regulate and remove existing threats by establishing constructive relationships with regional and world powers. Therefore, it is necessary to unite states on a regional and global level to resolve issues of ecological and national security for international peace.

AUTHOR BIO: Jyldyz Sydygalieva is a diplomat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic . She is currently a visiting scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, conducting research on ecological security issues in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia through an ACCELS-funded fellowship.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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