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Dire Pollution in Central Asia

By Paul Robinson - 19 Aug 2013 13:49:0 GMT
Dire Pollution in Central Asia

Charvak Lake represents the mountainous parts of Uzbekistan, where a neighbouring country plans very large dams. This hydroelectric scheme and dam is an example of the smaller installations that would help create harmony and still create power and provide water supply for the beleaguered and polluted areas further south and west; Charvak Image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The problems of multiple polluting incidents hit many nations, but when that is combined with desertification and a reduced water supply, it really needs careful monitoring. UNICEF have been responsible for many examples of aid to the countries of Central Asia. The Japanese government have helped them in funding Aral Sea areas with water purification and improvement of sanitation facilities. In particular, child and antenatal health levels were improved by up to 100%, though still leaving infant mortality at five times that in Western Europe. It is however the general population themselves, who suffer from terrible disease and radically-decreased health.

Clean water is one of the key issues here. It is not simply the lack of clean water in desert and drought-stricken areas. The supply of water from rivers is liable to dry up as neighbouring countries plan dam projects and several other uses for water. While salt and pollutants from Soviet agricultural mismanagement in the past blow around some regions, the pure water from the western Tien Shan and the other giant mountain ranges nearby is limited and threatened by the prospect of its loss.

The State Unitary Enterprise,TALCO (the Tajik Aluminium Company) is the biggest polluter by far of Tajikistan territory and that of its neighbours, because it is the largest Soviet industrial plant remaining from the 1970s. Aluminium production in Central Asia is limited to this one giant plant, but its closure would certainly be a blessing. Sixty miles west of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, that positioning makes it close to borders and highly-populated areas(in Uzbekistan alone, almost 1.1 million people are affected). 22,000-23,000 tons of waste are emitted as the raw alumina is converted into sulfur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride and nitrogen oxides as well as the intended aluminium metal. 122 tons are of the dangerous acid, hydrogen fluoride, creating twice the universally-advised levels in the border area of Sariasiya, for example.

Even the most modern aluminium smelters produce half a kilo of fluoride waste per ton of aluminium, but 8X as much is produced in these older plants. In the summer, the concentration reaches 3.4 times the limit largely because of the flow of airborne pollution along the narrow valley. The contamination of land, crops and people's health is unimaginable. Hydrofluoric acid (hydrogen fluoride) destroys vegetation in the area of the plant and is used commercially to cut through glass! The effect on domestic animals is to curtail bone growth and destroy teeth. As for humans, the population suffers from diseases of the endocrine, skeletal and muscular systems, upper respiratory tract, congenital abnormalities and cancer. The toxic concentration of fluorine cause pathologies of the musculo-skeletal system. Emissions from TALCO cause serious pathologies to women which lead to various complications during childbirth. As a result, many children are born with terrible defects such as cleft lip and even congenital malformation. Pregnant women experience more miscarriages and stillbirths. There was an increase of 2.25% in spontaneous and therapeutic abortion over the last 5 years, with a much greater rise in stillbirths in the Sariasiya region and its neighbours. 434 stillbirths in this area in 4 years is a figure that can't be disregarded by anyone.

TALCO pollution damages the region's agriculture and economy considerably too. There is negligible silk production, which has been traditional in the region; the gardens are perishing; crop yields are declining massively. In total, the economic damage caused by TALCO amounts to hundreds of millions of US dollars during the last 5 years. At the same time, it is difficult to assess accurately the total damage caused to nature and human health!

The emissions from TALCO fairly cause deep concerns about the deterioration of the ecological situation in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There were repeated appeals from the Uzbek side, in particular from the Ecological Movement established just 5 years ago as well as the population of Surkhandarya, a province in Uzbekistan which suffers most, to the Tajik side with demand to stop polluting the environment and shut down operations of TALCO. More than 757 thousand people from Surkhandarya sent an appeal to the UN General Assembly, UN Environmental Programme and World Health Organization for help. Tajikistan seems to simply deny the true situation exists, and relations between the countries deteriorate accordingly.

Previous work on consultation with Europeans such as the Belgian government have produced proposals for the EU parliament on a very large dam project in Tajikistan that would inevitable remove water from the countries downstream. The purpose would seem to be the vast energy supply always required for the production of aluminium (at TALCO), but the sensitive development of smaller dams and a brand new (much needed) plant would be a useful end-point for all the workers, population and national governments who have been drawn into this long discussion.

Obviously some forms of aid and advice are needed for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and neighbouring states. Other nations and other problems need to be considered, with international agencies on the ground already. It is a n obvious time to act, so that a peaceful and agreeable outcome can be achieved, even if it doesn't suit all of the people all of the time. Waiting even longer to bring all the parties to the table could prove to be negative in the extreme, as climate change and pollution add more complications.

A failure to take urgent measures to improve the environmental situation will lead to irreversible consequences for the environment and sharp deterioration of the living conditions for millions of people residing in this region.