Protests over Weakening Glacier Protections in Central Asia

Demonstrators in Bishkek, November 8, 2017 (source: RFE/RL)

The Kyrgyz government seeks to weaken protections for glaciers

The controversial gold mining project Kumtor in Kyrgyzstan is back in the news this month as local activists and environmentalists took to the streets in public protest. They were expressing their opposition to amendments to the Kyrgyz national water code that would allow the Canadian company Centerra Gold, the concessionaire at Kumtor, to remove glaciers in order to access underlying ore. GlacierHub has previously reported on environmental issues at the Kumtor gold mine.

The proposed amendments were approved by the Parliamentary Committee on Agrarian Policy, Water Resources, Ecology and Regional Development on November 1. This code previously restricted mining activity on the glaciers for the Canadian company. This limitation was not a very effective one, since Kyrgyz governments have issued annual permits for the removal of glacier ice since 1997, the year when the Kumtor mine began operations, to facilitate the extraction of gold.

Removing glacier ice at Kumtor mine (source: RFE/RL).

Nonetheless, the modification to Article 62, Protection of Glaciers, would be a further recognition of the weakening of environmental regulations. More concretely, it would remove the basis for environmental groups to press not to renew the permits each year. The proposed changes to the article appear below, in italics:

“Article 62. Protection of Glaciers. Activities that affect the acceleration of glacier melt using coal, ash, oil or other substances or materials are prohibited, and activities that may affect the condition of the glaciers or the quality of the water contained therein and activities related to ice storage, with the exception of glaciers of Davydov and Lysyi.”

The Kyrgyz government stated that this modification was necessary because it would grant Centerra Gold formal legal permission to continue mining at the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers. According to media reports, the Canadian company is planning to extract and produce an additional 150-160 tons of gold in the next decade or so. The Kumtor project, the largest gold mining operation in Central Asia and the only mine on active glaciers in the world, has produced more than 300 tons of gold since 1997.

Activist addressing demonstrators in Bishkek, November 10, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

Environmentalists and scientists point out the risks to the glaciers

Kyrgyz activists and environmental groups have categorically opposed the amendments and demanded the authorities and parliament withdraw them. These groups argue that the amendments would harm not only the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers, mentioned specifically, but others in the eastern Tien Shan range as well. In an op-ed article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on November 3, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, wrote that the bill would create a “desert for descendants in Central Asia.” He also stated, “[B]y the end of the [Kumtor] mine’s development, close to 100 million cubic meters of ice mass will disappear. …. Thus, not only the intensive melting of glaciers [due to climate change], but also the illegal man-made act, will lead to the destruction of glaciers, a natural storehouse of fresh water that is the property of all mankind, and not only of the Kyrgyz Republic.”

Scientific research supports this assessment. A review in 2016 by glaciologists to assess the impacts of mining concluded “First, … the dumping of mine spoil on receding and thinning glacier snouts has initiated the first ever recorded human-induced glacier speed-up events or surges. In addition to this, between 1999 and 2006 the Davydov Glacier had been artificially narrowed by initial spoil dumping, further accelerating its flow rate. Second, the expansion of spoil dumping onto down-valley areas … has triggered the reactivation (internal creep) of the glacier ice due to increased overburden. Third, the removal of substantial areas of the … glaciers will inevitably result in continued, and likely accelerated, ice drawdown from the accumulation zone, resulting in significant incursions of ice into the pit walls and the need for costly mitigation, in the form of either ice excavation or of temporary barrier construction, to allow continued mine operation.”

William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University, told GlacierHub that his observations also demonstrate that the impact of mining on adjacent glaciers at the Kumtor mine has been very negative over the years. However, he added that climate change has resulted in more ice loss from the Tien Shan mountain range than mining activities. He added, “Even if all mine activities stopped tomorrow, I do not think there is a reasonable expectation for either Davydov or Lysyi Glacier to recover to shapes characteristic of pre-mining conditions. The application of overburden, and subsequent changes in ice flow, appears to have irreversibly altered both glaciers. I suppose this makes the decision to allow mining to continue understandably pragmatic; the glaciers cannot be rehabilitated.” He noted that the removal of glacier ice by Centerra Gold would nonetheless further accelerate the loss of glaciers, and contribute to the growing water deficits in the region.

The activists seemed to have little chance of blocking these amendments. The consensus in the government is based on the assessment that glaciers cannot be protected, because they have already experienced the impact of ice removal during 20 years of mining. The authorities stated that since two-thirds of Davydov and Lysyi glaciers have been destroyed, the loss of the remaining 20-30 percent would not have a negative impact on the neighboring glaciers in eastern Tien Shan.

Environmental groups organize protests

Nonetheless, environmental groups organized demonstrations in front of the presidential palace in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on November 8. Kalicha Umuralieva, the head of the NGO Nashe Pravo (Our Right) NGO, complained of lack of public hearings about the amendments. A video of the demonstrators can be seen here.

A meeting between representatives of environmental organizations and members of parliament on November 10 quickly revealed the tensions between the two, as can be seen in this video of the meeting. That day, the Vice Prime Minister Duishenbek Zilaliyev stated his decision not to withdraw the proposed amendments.

Tense meeting between environmental activists and government officials in Bishkek, November 10, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

The Kyrgyz government and the mine organized a visit for activists and officials to Kumtor on November 14, with the hope of a possible reconciliation. However, there were further protests in Bishkek against the amendments on November 16.

On November 19, the parliament approved the amendments. But on November 20, President Almazbek Atambayev stated that he might not sign the amendments. A failure on his part to sign them would  prevent them from becoming law. The situation remains unresolved at present, and may return to the status quo, in which permits are issued each year to allow Centerra to continue to remove glacier ice at Kumtor.

Experts comment on this conflict

Two researchers have offered comments on this case.

Amanda Wooden, a professor of Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, wrote to GlacierHub,

It is important to bear in mind that in 2014, the Jogorku Kenesh – Kyrgyzstan’s parliament – passed a Law on Glaciers, led by then-MP Erkingul Imankojoeva [an activist in the environmental NGO Karek] that would have outlawed mining glaciated areas. The passage of this law was a reflection of widespread public concern about mining impact on the glaciers in the Ak Shirak mountains, a section of the central Tien Shan range east of Lake Issyk Kul, where the Kumtor Mine is located. The president, Almazbek Atambayev, chose not to sign this protection into law. The fact that the current parliament is now changing the water code to create this permanent loophole, allowing continued damage to these glaciers, is a good indicator that these practices were not allowable under the water code before.

Anthony Bebbington, a professor of geography at Clark University, stated in an on-line interview,

This case demonstrates the way in which early impacts of a mining project structure any discussion of its later impacts. The justification for increased removal of ice from the glaciers in question seems to be that the earlier impacts of the mine on ice cover have been so significant that the glaciers are no longer viable – so why protect the little that is left given that it is likely to disappear anyway? One can imagine other variants of this same logic. In a region where indigenous peoples have been displaced by earlier rounds of extractive industry investment, some may argue “why should the last few indigenous people living in voluntary isolation be protected, when their long-term viability is unlikely, and the oil we could extract from this area will benefit millions?” Or in a region where most forest cover has already been lost to oil palm, soy bean or resource extraction, some may argue “why protect this last forest island when its ecological benefits are limited and we could instead clear it and generate wealth for the nation?” The implication for those who mobilize against the environmental impacts of resource industries is that you don’t want to lose the first arguments, because winning the later arguments is likely to be even harder.

Demonstrators in Bishkek, November 16, 2017 (source: RFE/RL).

Whatever the final outcome, this set of events shows the determination of environmental activities and organizations in Kyrgyzstan, an unusual case in Central Asia, often seen as a bastion of authoritarian govenrments. And it also shows the power of glaciers to stimulate concern within civil society.



Uranium Tailings Pose Environmental Risk In Kyrgyzstan

A version of this article was published in The Diplomat on December 13, 2016.

Mailuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan (Source: Ryskeldi Satke/Courtesy of The Diplomat).

The remote town of Mailuu Suu in South Kyrgyzstan is known for a Soviet legacy that still haunts the local population of more than 22,000. Residents of Mailuu Suu commonly say that the very first Soviet atomic bomb was made out of locally extracted uranium in the late 1940s. The township is surrounded by uranium tailings and radioactive dumps that have been of greatest concern to the country’s neighbor, Uzbekistan, for decades.

The gravest dilemma for the Kyrgyz government is related to the frequent landslides in the areas along the river of Mailuu Suu where the Soviet government kept radioactive waste from the uranium mining. The glaciers of the southern Tian Shan feed this river, which flows directly to the neighboring republic of Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley.

Previously, an accident in April 1958 at the uranium tailing 7 led to the discharge of  “600,000 cubic meters [of radioactive material] into the river [of Mailuu Suu],” according to an OSCE report in 2005. The demise of the Soviet Union and poor maintenance of the uranium tailings since the 1990s has raised concerns in the region and abroad, ultimately bringing the World Bank’s attention to the challenging task of remediation in Mailuu Suu.

The World Bank has invested $11.76 million into the “Disaster Hazard Mitigation” project in Mailuu Suu, which was launched in 2004 and completed in 2012. The World Bank’s objective has been focused on minimizing “the exposure of humans, livestock, and fluvial flora and fauna to radionuclide’s associated with abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste rock dumps in the Mailuu-Suu area; and improvement of the effectiveness of emergency management and response by national and sub-national authorities and local communities to disaster situations.”

However, locals who are weary of impact from the uranium legacy believe health issues and birth anomalies persist in the area. “[There are] big problems in this town,” said Minabar Umarova, chair of the Women’s Committee of Mailuu Suu. “Our analysis in 2014 of health among local women and children in Mailuu Suu revealed that our town of 24,000 had 180 children [younger than 18] with disabilities. At the same time, the neighboring district of Suzak with more than 240,000 residents had only 165 disabled children. So, Suzak district, with the population ten times larger than Mailuu Suu, has less children with disabilities.”

View of the old mill and uranium tailings sites in Mailuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan (Source: IAEA Imagebank/Creative Commons).
View of the old mill and uranium tailings sites in Mailuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan (Source: IAEA Imagebank/Creative Commons).

Indeed, an “effect of radiation and radionuclides on public health in Mailuu Suu has reflected on higher rates of birth anomalies — 5.12 percent; miscarriages — 12.1 percent; stillbirth rate — 1.25 percent” than anywhere else in the country, according to research by the Institute of Medical Problems of the National Academy of Sciences, Kyrgyz Republic. The Institute’s previous field monitoring and observation in 2007 found the presence of radioactive uranium and thorium in women’s placentas in Mailuu Suu and surrounding villages.

Respectively, in the village of Sary Bae, background gamma radiation was recorded within 40  – 640 mR/h [milliroentgens per hour] whereas in the neighboring city of Jalal Abad background radiation is 21 mR/h, according to official data. Sampling of the 15 local women’s placentas has shown the presence of uranium in the amount of 0.33 mg/kg ± 0.2 (p <0.05); and thorium in the amount of 0.25 mg/kg ± 0.1 (p <0.05). Uranium and thorium in women’s placenta was a cause for complications during pregnancy in 80 percent of the cases among observed women of Mailuu Suu.

The Institute for Medical Studies’ research has concluded that snow melt and flash floods trigger frequent mudslides during the spring season in Mailuu Suu that in effect carry radionuclides from dumps and tailings to the local river. This finding was confirmed by the Switzerland-based Spiez Laboratory that conducted a field study in Mailuu Suu last year. Swiss scientists also found “extremely high levels of uranium in drainage water from the tailings.”

The Mailuu Suu River (Source: Ryskeldi Satke/Courtesy of The Diplomat).
The Mailuu Suu River (Source: Ryskeldi Satke/Courtesy of The Diplomat).

The threat of radioactive contamination in Mailuu Suu and in downstream areas of the Fergana Valley has been actively discussed in the European Union. The EU was analyzing impact assessments while conducting feasibility studies in Kyrgyzstan. Last year, the European Commission initiated the creation of the “Environmental Remediation Account, a vehicle to channel international efforts toward finding long-lasting solutions to the severe environmental problems related to former uranium mining and milling activities” in Central Asia. The EU has contributed €16.5 million ($17.5 million) to the fund, which is managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and already had its first assembly in July this year in London.

Vince Novak, EBRD director for nuclear safety, highlighted the significance of the remediation program in Central Asia (including Mailuu Suu) and said it is a “very important new initiative by the EC and the EBRD as it addresses one of the less-well known yet urgent remaining challenges from Soviet nuclear operations. However, the success of our new fund will depend on the commitment of partner countries and support from donors.”

Rakhman Toichuyev, director of the Institute for Medical Problems, said that in order to be effective, the EU-funded remediation project in Mailuu Suu could start with improvement of the township’s water supply infrastructure, which is one of the main concerns in Mailuu Suu and surrounding villages. Because of the difficulties with water supply, residents of the village of Kok Tash below Mailuu Suu use contaminated water from the river.

Mining Company Shirks Blame for Glacier Damage in Kyrgyzstan

The most controversial gold mining project in Central Asia is back in the spotlight again this month. Canadian mining company Centerra Gold has re-launched its public relations campaign in Kyrgyzstan to improve the company’s image over the status of glaciers at the Kumtor gold mine, one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines and a flagship project that accounts for 90 percent of company’s profits.

Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)
Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range is the site of a heated battle over gold, water, and ice, as GlacierHub has previously reported. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, the mountain’s steep peaks are home to some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region.

In an April 12 statement, Centerra’s subsidiary, the Kumtor Gold Company, proclaimed: “Conditions of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, that influence of operations to glaciers in the Kumtor area is minimal and cannot be compared to the climate change processes.”

Kyrgyz environmentalists responded to Centerra by highlighting the negative impact of mine blasts and excavation of glacier masses at Kumtor that have exacerbated ice melt at the site. Isakbek Torgoyev, director of the Geomechanics and Subsoil Resources Use Institute under the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, said:

The Kyrgyz Republic’s whole water fund is also made of the Petrov and Davidov Glaciers that have been formed over the centuries, and in the past these glaciers have had 700 million cubic meters of ice mass, but now, only 200 million cubic meters are left. The destruction of glaciers has created massive waste mixed with ice, acids and heavy metals which estimated at 2 billion tons. After Canadians depart, melting masses will inevitably end up in Lake Issyk-Kul and the Naryn River. Therefore, this is scary.

And William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Toronto and a geologist with a specialty in climatology, has been studying glaciers and their response to global warming, told The Diplomat magazine in November in 2014:

[While] climate change is undoubtedly the main factor driving glacier retreat across the Tien Shan range, the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers are special cases because they are impacted by the Kumtor mine. These glaciers are not retreating due to accelerated surface melt alone, but also by increased ice removal at their termini. In the case of the land-terminating Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers, this ice removal is a consequence of mining activities, as the ice overburden must be removed to access ore located beneath the glaciers. The perimeter of the Kumtor mine open ice pit appears to have been excavated up glacier at greater than 30 meters per year between 1998 and 2013. Over the same period, nearby land-terminating glaciers appear to have retreated at closer to 10 meters per year. Local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers than regional climate change.

Moreover, in his 2015 interview with Radio Canada International, Colgan added that, “Kumtor is not known for sharing information with the public, especially geotechnical information.”

Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)
Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)

European environmental non-profit organization CEE Bankwatch, which has extensively monitored Kumtor’s gold mine, has highlighted Centerra’s misconduct. CEE Bankwatch’s latest assessment on the Kumtor mine, after visiting Kyrgyzstan in October 2015, indicated that:

[T]he mine is a prime example of mining’s negative impact on glaciers. First and foremost, twenty years of extraction and fifteen years of dumping waste rock on top of the glaciers have caused an accelerated glacier terminus surge. In other words the glaciers are now advancing into the open pit, which is creating great challenges to the mining operation.

Nonetheless, Centerra’s powerful financial supporter, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), ignored public calls for the bank’s compliance with its commitment to “high standards of transparency, environmental, health and safety conduct” and to “support the development of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in the Kyrgyz Republic.” These stipulations are in line with the EBRD’s 2008 environmental and social policy, which strongly emphasizes “compliance with EU environmental standards,” and promotion of “good practices among the Bank’s clients.” EBRD is seemingly not willing to re-evaluate the bank’s environmental policies toward this mining project. Alistair Clark, EBRD’s managing director for the environment and sustainability, told GlacierHub last year in Tbilisi, Georgia that “maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining.”

Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)
Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)

Based on the company’s estimate, Kumtor mine will be operational for another ten years. Centerra disagrees with Kyrgyz public intentions regarding modifications to the country’s water code, which would restrict the company’s practice of moving ice. “Should Kumtor be prohibited from moving ice (as a result of the purported application of the Water Code), the entire December 31, 2015 mineral reserves at Kumtor, and Kumtor’s current life of mine plan would be at risk, leading to an early closure of the operation. Centerra believes that any disagreement in relation to the application of the Water Code to Kumtor would be subject to international arbitration under the 2009 agreements governing the Kumtor Project,” the company stated in its 2015 annual report.

It is unclear how recent political developments, after yet another prime minister’s resignation in the Kyrgyzstan earlier this month, will affect Kumtor mine operations. However, the Canadian company does not seem to have reservations about threatening to abandon its cash cow project in Kyrgyzstan amid the latest reshuffle in the country’s government and ongoing political opposition to destruction of glaciers. Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2017; though the groups that are likely to form the new government seem inclined to support keeping Kumtor mine operations steady, the political winds may shift, and Centerra might once again face strong pressures.

[GH: please note comment below]

At COP21, Afghanistan’s Adaptive Capacity Remains a Concern

Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O'Connor)
Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O’Connor)

Ahead of the Paris conference on climate change in December 2015, conflict-ridden Afghanistan submitted its climate action plan in October to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The plan’s assessment of the country’s capacity to adapt to climate change and the associated challenges of doing so clearly outline genuine concerns that potentially may impact the livelihoods of millions of Afghans in the upcoming years and decades. War-torn Afghanistan is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters throughout the impoverished country’s 34 provinces. Previously, the Stockholm Environmental Institute projected in a report on climate modeling that

Afghanistan will be confronted by a range of new and increased climatic hazards. The most likely adverse impacts of climate change in Afghanistan are drought related, including associated dynamics of desertification and land degradation. Drought is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than as a temporary or cyclical event. (See here)

Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)
Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)

Meanwhile, prolonged political instability in Afghanistan took its toll on scientific research of the impact of climate change on the country’s glaciers and mountains. As a result, scientists mainly used available tools to substitute ground based research in the country, such as high-resolution imagery collected from satellites, periodic water level measurements from glacier-fed Amu Darya and the exchange of information between the neighboring states.

Nonetheless, the complexity of the studies related to climate change’s effect in South Asia and surrounding regions dictate the necessity of continuing research, focusing on weather patterns in the target areas, and evaluating weather anomalies in the greater Eurasian region. Ben Orlove, a member of the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute’s Working Group, believes that this year’s mid-summer heatwave in southern Pakistan, which claimed close to 2000 lives, is a sign of the changing climate in the region. According to news reports, summer temperatures reached 49 degrees C (120F) in the Pakistani city of Larkana. In the neighboring India, a heatwave which occurred in May this year killed over 2500. And the question arises as to the degree of the observable impact in Afghanistan.

A highly visible impact of global climate change in Afghanistan was recorded in the tributaries of the Amu Darya river in the Wakhan corridor. A recent study on retreating glaciers in Afghanistan and Pakistan entitled “Space-based observations of Eastern Hindu Kush glaciers between 1976 and 2007, Afghanistan and Pakistan” states, “In the Hindu Kush, retreat and relative stagnation dominates. Similar results have been obtained in other regions, where 93% of the sampled glaciers in the Wakhan region of Afghanistan and 74% of the sampled glaciers in the Hindu Raj of Pakistan retreated.” Rapid glacial melt in Afghanistan, combined with heavy rains during the spring-summer seasons, translates to flooding in the conflict affected areas.

Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)
Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)

However, scientists warn that flooding hazards are only a small part of the larger impact of climate change processes in Afghanistan. In the last two decades, the country has had severe droughts that have revealed high vulnerability of millions of Afghans. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicated in a memo in 2007 that effects of desertification and droughts were observable in the country’s “arid north, west and south”. They pointed out the necessity of research and increased data collection to analyze weather patterns in the country. The memo also highlighted existing challenges associated with a “near total lack of data,” which remains a barrier for researchers and scientists to investigate impact of the desertification in the country. The Afghan government’s National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment summary stated that a “high proportion of Afghanistan’s 27 million people face chronic and transitory food insecurity. Food insecurity based on calorie consumption is estimated at 30.1 percent. Of the 7.6 million food-insecure people, an estimated 2.2 million (or 8.5 percent) are very severely, 2.4 million (9.5 percent) severely, and 3.1 million (12.2 percent) moderately food insecure.” Climate change experts presume that increasing temperatures in spring-summer seasons in the next several decades are expected to exacerbate existing food insecurity in Afghanistan.

Social impacts from weather anomalies is also anticipated to worsen already unresolved issues with the access to clean drinking water. In 2014, an assessment produced by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) reported that:

Access to clean drinking water from the tap has so far remained a dream for most families in Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, only one household in ten is connected to the largely dilapidated public water supply; in provincial towns, the figure is one in five. Meanwhile, the rural population relies for its water primarily on public wells, rivers and streams, or water tankers.

They indicate that a gradual increase in temperatures by 1.4 C to 4.0 C in 2060s is expected to severely impact Afghanistan’s agriculture and water management. Socio-economic development of the country is more than likely to experience distress that could lead to humanitarian crises in the future.

Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)
Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)

Ben Orlove argues that climate change could be a cause for internal mass migration in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley triangle, where poor water irrigation practices remain a matter of regional debate. Arguably, developing weather patterns such as rising temperatures and droughts may aggravate social tensions within densely populated Ferghana Valley. Such scenarios may well reasonably be applied to Afghanistan, where migration can be triggered due to drought and loss of livelihoods in the rural areas as a direct consequence of changing weather patterns. Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) indicated that it is unable to improve the overall situation with research of the effects of climate change due to “general lack and inaccessibility of data, lack of capacity and trained manpower, lack of meteorological stations in most part and data, lack of potential climate knowledge.”

NEPA has been essential to international donors in introducing and conducting sustainable development programs (such as water storage and sustainable water usage) in mountain communities. In 2012, the United Nations Environment Program jointly with NEPA launched the first of its kind in the country: a climate change initiative in Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamyan and Daikundi provinces. This $6 million program was mainly financed by the Global Environment Facility to “improve water management and use efficiency; community-based watershed management; improve terracing, agroforestry and agro-silvo pastoral system, climate-related research and early warning systems; improve food security; and rangeland management.”(See here)

The UNFCCC’s assessment of the country’s adaptive capacity concluded that funding of the related study projects is available but aid remains marginal due to the concentration of “efforts on emergency response, together with high-priority development issues that include education, health and basic infrastructure, amongst others.” However, the Afghan government recognizes that existing climate change-related challenges are not limited to funding gaps, weak public awareness about environmental issues, lack of research data, expertise and reliable historical data. The country’s authorities believe that these key actions are part of the National Adaptation Plan that would enable Afghanistan to “overcome existing gaps and barriers towards sufficiently addressing” country’s adaptation needs. It is hoped that the initiatives currently being discussed at COP21 will contribute to such efforts.

Ryskeldi Satke is a researcher and contributing writer with news organizations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at

European Bank Says Mining Projects Don’t Damage Glaciers

For years, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been involved in the Kumtor mining project, which some experts say is contaminating ground and surface waters. Kyrgyz local communities have been complaining that the gold mine is causing negative environmental and social impacts on the nearby villages. Additionally, international NGOs and Kyrgyz environmentalists believe that the Canadian-operated Centerra Gold mine is triggering rapid glacier melt due to company’s mining practices. The EBRD has denied these claims.

In May 2014, I was invited to the EBRD Annual Meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia where I met and interviewed  Alistair Clark (EBRD’s Managing Director Environment and Sustainability Department), Michaela Bergman (EBRD’s Chief Counselor for Social Issues Environment and Sustainability Department), and  Dariusz Prasek (Director, Project Appraisal Environment Department).  

Here is an excerpt of the interview:

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Ryskeldi Satke: on EBRD audits of the Kumtor mine. It looks like drinking water is the main concern here and it was one of the demands in the villages and this problem was raised during protests as well. My understanding is that EBRD has done due diligence on the impact. Why then there is an issue with the drinking water, still?

Alistair Clark: There shouldn’t be an issue with the drinking water. For instance, there are monitoring results for water discharge from the mining site available to the public, I believe.

Ryskeldi Satke: CEE Bankwatch did an investigation into the mine in 2011 and they were trying to get hydrogeologist Robert Moran onto Kumtor premises but Centerra refused to grant access to Mr. Moran for water quality testing. Moran took samples down the local river stream from the mining project and said that “something is in this water that has been added from the mining activity”.

Dariusz Prasek: We followed up on that and 50 samples of water were taken near the Kumtor mine. None of these 50 samples confirmed Mr. Moran’s findings. ERM firm was the consultant. I don’t have all the data in front of me and ERM work never confirmed Moran’s findings. These findings were ungrounded. Something that Mr. Moran took for sampling was never confirmed by the independent consultant.

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Alistair Clark: We are basing and we took that science in terms of results, you raised that issue. And we’ve got  information that doesn’t confirm Mr. Moran’s findings. So, we are not trying to discredit it and we have body of data that actually says that water is ok for water supply. We can’t comment on why people are protesting. Last time, there was an annual meeting few years ago and issues of Centerra Gold came up. We took claims that were made by Bankwatch and others. We took it very seriously and dispatched two-three people to the mine site to have independent audits done. These claims were not found to be there, company’s practice was in compliance with international best practice and policy. And also, according to requirements that we put onto the project as part of EBRD financing. So when we have information from colleagues like yourself, we’ll look at that data, we’ll look at that information and we would triangulate. We can’t really do much more to stage until we see body of evidence.

Ryskeldi Satke: I was recently in Mongolia and we have similar reports from the local people near the Gatsuurt mining project about the drinking water again. What are the odds of having complaints from the local communities in both Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia about the drinking water?

Michaela Bergman: I think people can express concerns and it can also be about perceptions. I think we have to understand what these concerns are. We have worked on projects where the data is within whatever acceptable limits and people still don’t accept it as safe. We have to understand exactly what the issue is. Have they’ve got a proof of them being sick or they don’t like the smell of the water. It could be a lot of reasons, in our experience.

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any comprehensive medical research into long-term health effects in the areas which have generated numerous complaints about the drinking water?

The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)
The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)

Alistair Clark: There was a medical study in 1998 after spill

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any study done in recent years?

Alistair Clark: I don’t know about now. But there was a study of the impact of that spill and we were dealing with cyanide with half life of days which got down quickly to low concentrations. Company provided clean drinking water. There have been number of claims about injuries and medical conditions associated with that and I understand that the medical reports from the Kyrgyz Republic that most of those reports were not associated with the spill.

Darius Prasek: What we monitor is actually in compliance with the standards of the project we finance and we have our own annual visits to the company, we review all standards on annual basis. So we are happy that the company is meeting standards. We didn’t launch any health assessment of the local populace.

Ryskeldi Satke: You referred to the independent consultants hired by Centerra Gold.

Dariusz Prasek: Paid by Centerra Gold but hired in agreement with EBRD in terms and references preferred by the bank.

Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by  GEUS's William Colgan.
Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by GEUS’s William Colgan.

Ryskeldi Satke: Prizma LLC. is one of them which went as far as stating that Kumtor mine glaciers are melting primarily due to climate change. And I have contacted PhD William Colgan glaciologist with Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark (GEUS) to clarify Prizma’s claim on effect of the global warming on Kumtor glaciers and according to Colgan’s expertise, climate change is not the only reason, although it is undeniable that climate change is effecting glaciers globally. Kumtor case is very specific, the GEUS researcher says “local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers than regional climate change”. William Colgan’s finding was also demonstrated on satellite imagery pulled from archives from 1977 to 2014.

Alistair Clark: If you look at the number of glaciers around the world and see how many are retreating, the vast majority are indeed retreating. Prizma was looking at specific issues. We have our own experts in climate change team, many geologists. So this issue of melting is of concern and for instance, Centerra Gold had a habit of putting waste rock on one of the glaciers at Kumtor and EBRD has stopped such practice. We did that. Now, what’s the consequence of saying that glaciers are melting. is it due to mining activity? Maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining, if you take rock off the ground and putting the waste rock on the glacier which is also slowly moving, I think that’s an argument to say that one affecting the other. But if there’s no rock placed on the glacier which still retreating, well, it’s not gonna be due to the mining activity. It will be due to long-term geological issue.

Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.
Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.

Ryskeldi Satke: Given the subject of melting, that is the reason for growing in size of the Petrov lake. And people have been raising the issue of outburst at Petrov lake which may wash away the cyanide tailing pond and contaminate the Kumtor river which is a tributary to Syr Darya river. You might heard of the dam spill disaster at Mount Polley mine in Canada, last year. Conditions are somewhat similar between the Kumtor and Mount Polley sites, both with over 50 million tons of waste chemical material. Is there any plan in place that would safeguard the area from disaster scenario similar to Mount Polley spill?

Alistair Clark: Yes, they are putting in an engineering design. That aspect is monitored by the company, I think they have done land forming to channel any sudden breaks. So they have been engineering that issue out.

Dariusz Prasek: And they have been assessing the worst case scenario. In terms of what would have really happened. The modelling showed that it’s even with the outburst falling into the tailing pond and the contamination would not be significant. They did modelling but they are not ignoring the issue but implementing measures to prevent it from happening.