Saving the Steppe: Kazakhstan’s Environmental Protection Efforts

From the soaring, snow-capped mountain peaks of Almaty in the south to the picturesque glacier lakes nestled in the pine woods of Kokshetau in the north, Kazakhstan’s natural beauty is beyond dispute. Unfortunately, the sprawling Central Asian nation is also home to some of the world’s greatest environmental challenges, including the radioactive legacy of the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk nuclear testing facility and the alarming shrinkage of the economically and culturally significant Aral Sea.


Фото Сергея Бондаренко, Болатбека Отарбаева

Forty years of heavy irrigation by rice and cotton farmers have taken their toll on the once-mighty Aral Sea in southwestern Kazakhstan, reducing it from one to three separate bodies of water. Over the past several decades, fish disappeared, salinity increased and large quantities of pesticides were released into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) in the northeastern part of the country suffered devastating environmental degradation under the Soviet Union, which operated the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site amidst Kazakhstan’s vast steppes. From the first explosion in 1949 until the last in 1989, the Soviets conducted a total of 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric.

The environmental implications were severe as nuclear fallout from the atmospheric tests and uncontrolled exposure of the workers led to high rates of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects in Semey and surrounding villages.

The good news is that Kazakhstan has worked diligently and aggressively to address these and many other environmental concerns. Since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government has taken dramatic steps to mitigate the harmful effects of nuclear testing, the Aral Sea degradation and other environmental calamities.

Nurlan Kapparov, Kazakhstan’s 41-year-old minister of environment protection, told EdgeKz that restoring Kazakhstan’s environmental health is a top priority of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration.

“In recent years, the government has taken significant steps to address social and economic problems that have emerged in the Aral Sea region as a result of environmental disaster,” Kapparov said, explaining how the country’s decision to reclaim and rejuvenate the northern part of the sea nearly five years ago has produced tangible results: rising water levels and the return of fish and other aquatic life.

Kapparov also said that since the closure of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, Kazakh scientists have worked closely with the international scientific community to monitor and assess the site. “The data suggests that a large part of the test site has no negative effect on the population living in the surrounding areas,” he said.

However, Kapparov acknowledged that the radioactive debris isn’t stable; it is carried by winds to other areas of the region, presenting a continuing challenge. He said the Kazakh government has implemented several programs to address these challenges. “Implementation of these programs will allow for solving the problem of the Semipalatinsk test site dramatically, both in terms of radiation safety and in terms of socio-economic development of the region,” the minister said.

Although the Aral Sea and Semey nuclear test site issues are likely the foremost environmental challenges Kazakhstan is working to address, they aren’t the only ones. The Kazakh government is also working to prevent desertification and land degradation, as well as conducting reforestation work and developing protected forest areas. In addition to mitigating past environmental damage, Kazakhstan is taking proactive steps to prevent future calamities. This Central Asian nation is a key member of the Green Bridge initiative that came out of the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development “Rio + 20,” which gathered more than 100 Heads of State and Government and over 50 thousand delegates from around the world.

The program focuses on efficient use of natural resources, investments in ecosystem services, development of low-carbon energy sources and adaptation to climate change, sustainable urban development, promotiong of green business and green technologies, and promotion of sustainable lifestyles and improvement of quality of life.

“The Green Bridge initiative is a practical instrument for international transition to a ‘green’ economy by promoting technological progress, improving the experience of environmental management and improvement of the legal, economic and institutional conditions for green investments and technologies,”Kapparov said. “All this will give an impetus to the development of a new, stable and more secure economy,” according to the minister.

Efforts to Clean Up Semipalatinsk

Almost since declaring its independence in 1991, the Kazakhstan government has been intensely committed to monitoring and managing decades of nuclear fallout from the Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk.

The Kazakhs, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations in the republic, as well partners from U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada have implemented a comprehensive program for the rehabilitation of the population and ecology of the region. Following an analysis of the effects of radiation on territories adjacent to the former Semipalatinsk test site, the UN Development Program together with UN Children’s Fund, the United Nations Population Fund and the UN Volunteers launched a three-year project called “Enhancing Human Security on the Former Test Site in Semipalatinsk.” The countries devoted $15 million to this effort.

The government of Kazakhstan has also adopted a number of nationwide initiatives aimed at minimizing negative environmental or public health effects of the nuclear testing site. However, cancer rates are still high. According to unofficial data, 1.3 million of people are considered victims of the four decades of nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site.

Efforts to Restore Aral Sea

The Aral Sea – once the world’s largest lake – has shrunk by nearly 70 percent. But Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has vowed to reverse the alarming trend.

In 2001, the Kazakh Government has defied fate, launched a vast rescue program for the Kazakh side of the Aral Sea, working in partnership with the World Bank. The program included construction of the 13 kilometer Kok-Aral dam, which divided the sea into two halves, north (Kazakh) and south (Uzbek). The rescue program also included development of the Syr Darya river banks to increase the volume of water being discharged into the northern part of the sea.

The measure had an almost immediate impact. Soon after the program was completed in August 2005, tests revealed that the surface of the northern half of the lake had risen 13 percent from 2,850 square kilometers in 2003 to 3,250 square kilometers in 2006. During the same period, salinity dropped dramatically resulting in the gradual return of marine life and several varieties of freshwater fish. The volume of fish catches – less than 1,500 tons just two years ago, is now 15,000 tons per year – a spectacular ten-fold increase. As a result of the commitment of Kazakhstan and other international allies, a significant climatic evolution has taken place in and around the northern part of the Aral Sea. The inhabitants of the region – finally able to resume their former livelihoods – have noted a considerable improvement in environmental conditions of the region in recent years.

This article first appeared in Edge Kazakhstan magazine in April 2013 and is reprinted here with permission.

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