Tourists associate Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul with beaches, children hawking boiled corn, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering summers that plague most of Central Asia. But for the residents of Kadji Sai on the lake’s southern shore, the summer tourist influx is only a distraction from the trouble looming, literally, right over them: a derelict Soviet-era uranium mine.
Just uphill, the mine and uranium-processing mill were the original rationale for the settlement. But they closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In recent years, the site has become a source of radiation-related concerns. When heavy rains hit the area, the uranium tailings – buried between two creek beds – are frequently covered in water; the overflow drains through the village and into Issyk-Kul.
On a recent visit, one resident expressed the frustration that many of his neighbors share: “Everything was just left here. People that could leave, did. But for those of us who stay here and who have families here, what can we do? It seems like everyone wants to come to Kyrgyzstan and make mines but how do we live with [the mines] once they’re finished?”
As foreign donors, government agencies and NGOs spend time and money discussing the cleanup, local officials are often reduced to hand wringing, begging someone to do something. In the case of Kadji Sai, local authorities say they are unable even to afford guards to keep scavengers from looting the little valuable equipment and infrastructure that remains.
Local drivers are willing to take visitors the three kilometers up the hill to the facilities for a modest fee, but they are less willing to get out of their cars once there. The threat of radioactive dust swirling around each footstep was enough to keep my driver anxiously chain smoking, windows rolled up in his early-1990’s Audi, eyeing the lake below.
Writing in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Radioactivity last year, a multinational group of scientists concluded that the facilities near Kadji Sai pose a “[l]ow radiological risk” to locals’ health. Still, the team of experts noted, “hot spots with elevated radioactivity levels were easily detected” and, “[t]he presence of particles carrying significant amount of radioactivity and toxic trace elements may represent a hazard during strong wind.”
At the mine site, it is hard not to notice the constant wind. If not for the machinery too heavy or difficult to cart away, the scars left by the mining could easily be mistaken for just another feature of the wind-bitten landscape.
For now, seasonal vacationers keep Kadji Sai’s economy afloat. Villagers say that the political instability over the nearby Kumtor gold mine has cost many of them jobs, leaving their village effectively dependent on tourists. Still, many fear that the trickle of tourist money may not be enough to feed the village.
When asked what they thought about Kadji Sai’s future, two young female employees at one resort only laughed. After consulting each other one replied, “We don’t know, we’re from Bishkek. We only came here for the summer.”