While Kyrgyzstan is well-known for its picturesque yurts and mountain landscapes, its ecological issues are less well-known. Among the latter a dubious distinction definitely goes to the abandoned uranium mines of Mailuu-Suu. The problems generated by these sites, fathered by an insane Soviet nuclear policy, however, are not only ecological, risking instead to become decisive in the escalation of the already tortuous ethnic and territorial conflicts.
Most of the old uranium mining sites are located around the Fergana Valley, a vast triangular plain which is one of the most fertile and densely populated areas of Central Asia.
A peaceful territorial unit for centuries, the valley of Fergana is now absurdly divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
“Boundaries in a zig zag pattern. Streets interrupted by customs in the middle of nowhere, where young guards wear botch uniforms while, rifles in hands, they control comings and goings of a few farmers.
And then the enclaves. For example Sokh, Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyz territory populated exclusively by Tajiks. Or Kyrgyz regions inhabited only by Uzbeks and Tajiks. Or other combinations like that. A fantasy.
Or villages once common, now literally split in two by the border. School on one hand, market on the other, barbed wire and checkpoints in between” )
With a diverse population, but pacified by centuries of mingling and intermarriage, the tension is exacerbated by a precarious water supply. Organized on a regional scale during the Soviet years, the management of these resources is now in the hands of individual states, with Kyrgyzstan having the knife by the handle. The Syr Darya river and its main tributaries originate for the most part in Kyrgyz territory and Kyrgyzstan has a string of dams on the river for the production of hydroelectric power, leaving dry the portions of the valley belonging to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In this context it is not surprising to see conflicts escalate into violence.
In 1990, riots in Osh about alleged injustices in the distribution of land, involved Uzbeks and Kyrgyz with more than 300 deaths.
In 1999, an Islamic militia fighting with the Uzbek government abducted some Japanese citizens. The story ended with the bombing by the Uzbek army of rebel camps in Kyrgyzstan, the release of the hostages and new frictions between states.
in 2010, during the so called Kyrgyz second revolution, the region was the theater to further mass exodus, due to new episodes of violence.
The tension remains high today, with troops on the border, inter-ethnic skirmishes and a growing presence of Islamic fundamentalist groups.
But what role do they play in all of this the abandoned uranium deposits? A sad and very critical role, given to the dangerous proximity of the site of Mailuu-Suu to the Syr Darya River basin.
Abandoned uranium mines of Mailuu-Suu
From 1946 to 1968, the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zapadnyi Mailuu-Suu has produced and processed more than 10,000 tons of uranium, much of which was used for the nuclear program of the USSR, “The first Soviet atomic bomb was created by Mailuu-Suu uranium,” said Torgoev Isakbek Asangalievich, a researcher at the Kyrgyz’s National Academy of sciences. Radioactive waste was dumped around the city, near geologic faults, without regard for the hydrogeological conditions or to the health of local residents. Today, 36 landfill sites are scattered throughout the area which contains a total of 1,960,000 cubic meters of radioactive mining waste.
According to a 2006 study published by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental NGO, Mailuu-Suu is found to be the third most polluted place in the world.
Landslides, earthquakes and floods regularly occur in the region and can cause serious radioactive contamination of the river Mailuu-Suu, which flows into the great Syr Darya river. A landslide in 1958 caused the release of more than 500,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste and contamination of vast areas of the Fergana Valley.
At Kara-Agac, a settlement built on a landfill for radioactive waste, the population is exposed to 10 mSv per year through radon gas and 10-30 mSv per year through contaminated food, not considering the impact of water contaminated by waste upstream.
Unaware of the dangers of radioactivity, the locals take the equipment in the old abandoned mines and sell them as scrap, risking not only their own lives but also the spread of radioactivity. A further problem is the use of rock from landfills as a building material for houses and roads.
The premises are unsettling, and the future of the Fergana Valley is increasingly uncertain.
This article was written by Cycloscope, who will travel to the valley in autumn 2014 in order to run a report that will help to shed light on the critical issues of this beautiful and ancestral territory. They are still looking for sponsors.