By Gulnura Toralieva in Bishkek (RCA No. 202, 9-May-03)
Environmental officials in Kyrgyzstan are warning that a spate of landslides threatens to contaminate large parts of the Fergana valley with radioactive waste.
Thirty-eight villagers died in a landslide at Karataryk in southern Kyrgyzstan on April 20. Landslides caused by rains occur annually. But the downpours have been unusually heavy this year, and the mudslides they create are made worse by the deforestation of mountain slopes that has taken place over the last decade.
Analysts now fear that toxic waste dumped 30 years ago at a disused uranium mine near the town of Mayluu-Suu could be washed away in a torrent of mud. One landslide has already taken place in the danger zone around Mayluu-Suu.
Southern Kyrgyzstan has 23 landfill dumps and 13 slag heaps containing radioactive waste. The Mailuu-Suu mine produced uranium for the old Soviet Union from 1946 to 1967. It was finally closed down in 1973, but the waste was left where it was, buried in the ground or simply piled up in heaps. The waste is both radioactive and toxic, and lies dispersed over a number of sites, which were never properly sealed or made stable.
Since then there has been a continuous threat of contamination, initially because of the lax safety standards of the old Soviet Union, and more recently because of mismanagement and under-investment by the post-communist government of Kyrgyzstan.
The uranium dumps have never looked more precarious. The structures built to contain the waste are in dire need of renovation, and there are more mudslides every year.
"In 10 or 11 years, the system for maintaining the dumping pits has been completely destroyed," said Kyrgyz environment minister Satybaldy Chyrmashev. "We are praying to God that there are no landslides at Mayluu-Suu."
Just days before the tragedy at Karataryk, the ministry for emergencies and the environment warned that further landslides could wash away several uranium dumps. The April 16 statement said that the damage from such an accident would stretch far beyond Kyrygyzstan's borders. On April 29, the Kyrgyz foreign ministry appealed to the United Nations to invest expertise and money to avert such an accident.
Most of the densely populated Fergana valley is located in Uzbekistan, downstream from Kyrgyz territory. Anarkul Aitaliev, who is in charge of the uranium waste treatment at the ministry, says the danger to the region cannot be underestimated, "If there is a catastrophe, not only will the entire flora and fauna of the Fergana valley suffer, but so will the three and a half million people who live there."
Aitaliev says the situation is so bad that foreign aid agencies are finally sitting up and taking notice, "They used to think our appeals and letters to them were without foundation. Now our foreign colleagues say that measures need to be taken right now."
Scientists from 55 countries met in Kyrgyzstan on April 16-18 to discuss how best to address the issue. The OSCE-funded meeting recommended setting up an international body to lobby for funds. But the likely costs of stabilising the uranium dumps has raised doubts over whether anything will be done before it is too late. Chyrmashev believes it will take 20 million US dollars to fix the problem.
"We need real money so we can start to do real work to save the region from a catastrophe," said Akylbek Kerimbekov, a manager at the AZAT company, which has been doing maintenance work on the waste dumps for 10 years.
He believes that no more time or money should be wasted on conducting surveys of the sites, as there are enough Soviet-era documents to work from - the funds should go on repair work.
"Unfortunately, this problem is talked about a lot, but no one is doing anything," said Kerimbekov.
Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek