In November 2014, in a Kazakhstani village near one of the world’s largest oil, gas and condensate fields, 25 schoolchildren and four adults suddenly grew ill and fell unconscious.
Residents of the village, Berezovka, had noticed flaring at the nearby Karachaganak field and had smelled gas the day before. They say they were poisoned and have demanded relocation. Though some local officials did speak publicly about the problem at the time, a watchdog says that Kazakhstan’s government and its Western partners are ignoring the illnesses and falsely accusing residents – who have complained of poisonings since 2002 – of faking.
The field is operated by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating BV (KPO), a consortium including BG Group from Britain, Italy’s ENI, Chevron from the USA, Russia’s Lukoil and Kazakhstan’s state-run KazMunayGaz. It is Kazakhstan’s largest producing gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, says KPO is trying to “hush up” the tragedy.
Independent monitors have found dangerous chemicals including hydrogen sulfide in Berezovka’s air, Crude Accountability said this month. And since the initial poisonings last November, several other bouts of fainting and illness have hit the village: “Almost 50 percent of the villagers are chronically ill and 80 percent of the children suffer from respiratory diseases.”
Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
Though you wouldn’t know it looking at how Russia treats activists who protest oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, Moscow has a soft spot for the environment – when it’s politically expedient.
Days after a European Union representative said Brussels is moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea, a senior Russian official said Moscow is concerned about the effect on the Caspian’s “extremely sensitive ecosystem.”
Igor Bratchikov, the Russian president's special envoy for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with CIS states, also told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on November 22 that the EU plans are an "interference in Caspian affairs.”
Bratchikov said that while constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline "it would be thoughtless and ruinous not to take environmental factors into account."
"The consequences of any incident would be catastrophic for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Caspian Sea," Bratchikov said. "Moreover, it is not Europeans or Americans, but the littoral states that would have to solve [problems] in case of a disaster."
The EU official, Denis Daniilidis, said the draft agreement, which he expects Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to sign later this year, ensures that any pipeline adheres to the "highest environmental standards."
The word “wasteland” comes to mind when driving around Turkmenbashi, the oil and gas hub on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast. Rusting pipelines crisscrosses barren, sandy expanses; an acrid smell hangs in the moist, sea air. Though the nearby beaches were once a destination for holidaying Turkmen, today the health-conscious visitor might think twice before taking a dip.
After reading a new report, that visitor might not need to think twice. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. have shown the waters around Turkmenbashi suffer dozens of oil spills annually.
“Sustained and ongoing release of oil into the waters of the Caspian Sea near the city and port of Turkmenbashi represents a legitimate environmental concern,” says the May 6 report by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the AAAS. “Frequent, low-volume spills often spread to cover a wide area and have been occurring semi-continuously for more than a decade.”
In the past, efforts to detect oil spills remotely relied on expensive radar and high-resolution imagery. For this study, AAAS used publicly available NASA satellite imagery in a new way, allowing “for continuous monitoring of environmental phenomena, including oil spills.” Over 11,000 satellite images taken over 12 years corroborated on-the-ground reports of regular spills. “Between 2003 and 2012 … the AAAS team identified between 43 and 64 possible oil slicks every year in Turkmenbashi Bay.”
The birds didn’t get far, the stunt prompted a lot of jokes, and the selection of Uzbekistan’s border region abutting Afghanistan as the cranes’ ideal wintering ground didn’t go down well in Tashkent.
Conservationists from Flight of Hope – the organization Putin promoted with his unforgettable stunt – chose the unpopulated banks of the Amu Darya river because it is protected, in essence, like a reserve.
But Tashkent believes the birds should be guided elsewhere because Uzbek border guards often burn vegetation in the area for better visibility, the BBC Russian Service said on April 12.
After Putin’s flying lesson, the Siberian cranes were expected to fly to Uzbekistan with gray cranes from western Siberia, but, in the end, they spent the winter in Russia due to early snowfall.
Some hope Uzbek President Islam Karimov's upbeat visit to Moscow this week might lead to some international cooperation on behalf of the cranes.
The two presidents did not address the issue publicly when they met on April 15, but a Flight of Hope representative told the BBC Russian service days before Karimov’s visit that the Russian president promised to discuss the birds’ fate with his counterpart. The two sides also signed a number of agreements during and before the visit, including on environmental protection.
The Dushanbe mayor’s office is suing Tajikistan’s leading opposition figure for criticizing the city’s environmental record, Asia-Plus reports. The suit, demanding an apology, was filed early last week. According to a top environmental official, back in October Muhiddin Kabiri of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), who is a member of the national legislature, criticized city officials during a parliamentary meeting on pollution.
"Nobody pays attention to the felling of trees in the capital, which has become systematic," he said during the session. "Reinforced concrete buildings have replaced tree-lined walkways and small parks in Dushanbe, which is causing problems for the city's ecosystem."
Rapid development in central Dushanbe has indeed meant vast destruction, with historic buildings and established parks ploughed under to make space for shiny new palaces and empty office buildings. The city's main central park, for example, was, until a few years ago, a woodland haven in the center of town, with majestic oaks and conifers providing welcome shade on a hot summer’s day. In 2007 and 2008, most of the trees were felled, allowing drivers on Rudaki Avenue to see the president’s bloated new meeting complex, the Palace of the Nation.
Kabiri is not alone in criticizing the mayor’s office for such developments. But he and his party regularly suffer attacks that appear more political than substantive. The pace is likely to pick up as presidential elections approach next year. President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to run for yet another 7-year term. He’s been in power since 1992.
Move over, CO2. Activists in Kazakhstan are joining a global initiative to promote alternatives to the fossil-fuel emissions their country helps pump into the atmosphere. On September 24, events focusing on clean energy and climate change will be held all over Kazakhstan as part of the global Moving Planet rally.
Kazakhstan has prospered over the last decade by exploiting its extensive oil and gas reserves. SUVs long ago replaced horses as the chief means of getting around this vast country.
But many Kazakhstanis are planning to switch to two wheels for the day. The online cyclist community Baiga.kz is organizing races in 25 cities, expecting 10,000 participants to compete in prize categories such as most stylish biker, craziest stunt, and youngest and oldest cyclists.
In Almaty, the Velo Almaty campaign will hold two events focusing on the next generation of bikers: cycling competitions for kids aged 3-7 in the city's central stadium and a painting contest for 3-17-year-olds on the theme of biking as a clean form of transport.
There's also a focus on removing garbage from towns and cities. A group called On the Trail of Cleanliness is gathering volunteers to help spruce up Kazakhstan's garbage-strewn towns and cities by resurrecting the Soviet-era subbotnik, a volunteer cleanup of public spaces.
Central Asia's Aral Sea used to be a fisherman's paradise. Today the body of water has shriveled up almost completely, with former fishing villages now finding themselves some 20 kilometers from the waterfront. In Kazakhstan, an effort is underway, though, to restock the that country's portion of the with fish and revive the local fishing industry. From an article in The Ecologist:
It is jarring to drive on what was once the Aral Sea. The Ecologist is en route to see the Kok-Aral Dam, some three-hours from Aral City on the border between the North and South Aral Sea and the delta of the Syr Darya River. The desertified sea bed is now home to camels and horses, grazing lazily on bits of grass. A couple of ships lie stranded along the drive, but the fabled ship cemeteries have gone, the victims of looting for scrap metal.
Once the water comes into to view, it isn't the rich wetland ecosystem it once was, but there are now signs of life returning. A few herons, ducks, storks and seagulls can be seen along the shoreline.
Already the Kok-Aral dam has provided a lease on life for the nearby villages. Water levels, which originally were 53 metres above Baltic Sea level, and at the lowest, 38 metres, have now increased to 42 metres above Baltic Sea level. Salinity has decreased 5 times, which has enabled 7 fish species to return, and fish catch has increased 10-12 times.
The Ecologist visits a small fish processing centre near Karaterren village. Along with flounder, there is carp, pike perch, and catfish all caught on the day using small motor boats. Batyrkhan Brekeev, a fisherman and the son and the father of fishermen, recently returned to fishing after years as a 'businessman'.
One of the more notable additions to the new Turkish cabinet, whose members were announced today, is Erdogan Bayraktar, head of the newly-created Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning. An argument could be made for making one ministry in charge of both protecting the environment and developing the cities (rapidly growing, in Turkey's case) that are threatening it, but the appointment of Bayraktar is certain to raise red flags. A first-time MP, Bayraktar was most recently head of TOKI, Turkey's powerful state housing agency, which has been one of the main forces behind Turkey's much-criticized "urban renewal" projects, which have led to entire communities being displaced and vast swathes of undeveloped land turned into cookie-cutter high-rise neighborhoods. In terms of both environmental protection and urban planning, TOKI's record is not great. Several Eurasianet articles about the agency and its actions can be found here.
Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, is famous for its sun and beaches. The beaches bring tourists by the bus and planeload to the city, but now Antalya also wants to capitalize on the sun part of its appeal, by becoming Turkey's first "solar city."
Although Turkey could be one of the world's leading solar energy producers, the country lags behind many other countries in terms of its solar capacity, in large part due to government regulations that critics charge discourage the use of solar. But with minimal government assistance, the city of Antalya is embarking on what seems like a very ambitious program to encourage the large-scale use of solar in the city. Reuters has the full story here.