ANGREN - Tuesday, May 01, 2012 -
Escaping the dust storms and drinking water shortages in the polluted Aral Sea area of northern Uzbekistan, Berdimurat moved to the city of Angren several years ago.
The 53-year-old expected a more wholesome environment in a greener and less remote part of the country, but instead his health deteriorated and his respiratory problems grew steadily worse.
Berdimurat, 57, blames pollution in Angren, located 71 miles from the capital Tashkent.
“I thought I’d be better off here, but my allergy is worsening because of industrial smog emitted from the coal-fired power stations,” he said. “If industry is developed [further] in Angren, it will need more electricity, causing major pollution.”
Angren was a Soviet-era industrial powerhouse and is already beset by pollution problems, but now Berdimurat and others fear the situation is about to deteriorate, putting people’s health further at risk.
On April 13, President Islam Karimov signed an order to create a special industrial zone in Angren, promising tax breaks to domestic and foreign investors.
The industrial zone is intended to create jobs and establish high-tech facilities to process mineral resources. Foreign partners are already being sought, in particular to work on synthesizing a diesel-like fuel from the low-grade brown coal found in the area.
The plans could help turn round the city’s faded fortunes, but doctors and experts on ecology are concerned about the impact for human health and the environment.
Angren and the surrounding region formed a major industrial base during the Soviet times, with a rich coal seam providing the fuel for a string of big industrial plants. It grew from a small town to a city of 135,000, and by the late 1980s it was producing 98 percent of Uzbekistan’s coal.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, links between the different republics were disrupted and industrial production slumped. Angren’s factories and mines were plundered of their machinery, unemployment rose, and the standard of living fell.
While the city is a shadow of its former self, some three million tons of brown coal are still mined here annually, and local fields are thought to hold two billion tons of reserves.
Although the coal is more polluting and less efficient than black coal, it is used to run local power stations. Pollution from carbon emissions is already two to three times the maximum permissible limit, according the government’s environmental protection agency.
Angren also has a dump containing five million tons of toxic waste, including traces of uranium. In dust form this can cause lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Official health data on the city is restricted, but the anecdotal evidence suggests pollution-related illnesses are increasing, according to a doctor who works for the hygiene monitoring service for Tashkent region, which includes Angren.
“We can only make judgments about the increasing number of diseases from the unpublished findings of my colleagues,” he said. “In Angren, there are large numbers of various cancers and respiratory diseases.”
An environmentalist with a local NGO said he was disappointed that the authorities were just looking to make money in Angren rather than addressing the severe problems there.
“Minerals will again be mined and processed to the detriment of people’s health,” he said.
While Angren may have particular problems, Uzbekistan as a whole has a poor environmental record. The global Environmental Performance Index for 2012 produced by Yale and Columbia Universities placed Uzbekistan third from the bottom, just ahead of Turkmenistan and Iraq.
(This article was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net).