Five students from Sheffield University traveled to Tien Shan Mountain Range in Kyrgyzstan to investigate the impact of climate change on a glacier that had never been studied before.
“Central Asia is one of the most threatened regions in the world to climate change, seeing some of the fastest rates of global glacial retreat,” said Sam Gillan, one of the leaders of the expedition. “There is currently a real focus on developing understandings of how climate change is affecting glaciers there, and we wanted to contribute to this developing field of research.”
Gillan and his colleague Alex Hyde were working on their undergraduate dissertation projects in the geography department at Sheffield University. Hyde says in the video that the idea for the trip came after a visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2017. He and Gillian wanted to study an actual glacier rather than working on a project in a lab. They soon narrowed down their topic to the Fedorovitch Glacier due to its relatively flat surface and accessibility.
Calum Sowden joined the expedition as a medic, Tom Drysdale as the group’s mountaineering advisor, and Louise Reddy as a research assistant.
The video documents the challenges of conducting research in such a remote location and highlights the rewards of field work. The team’s month-long data collection included measuring snow melt and temperature change.
Working at an elevation of 3,000 meters in such a remote location was challenging, mentally and physically, Reddy says in the video. “The hardest thing for all of us was the fact that the research requires you to do as much as possible,” he said. “The more often you take samples, the better the research will be.”
Check out the full video to see these young scientists at work—and find out what their favorite food was while isolated for a month in the mountains of Central Asia.
Check Out More GlacierHub Stories About Kyrgyzstan:
International Mountain Day, celebrated at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 11 December, encouraged collaborative talks regarding the protection of mountain ecosystems, sustainable development and international cooperation. This year’s event was hosted by Kyrgyzstan, a country whose landscape is 95 percent mountainous, according to Kyrgyzstan’s Permanent Representative, Mirgul Moldoisaeva.
Attendees at the International Mountain Day side event included representatives from mountainous countries, officials from UN agencies, and students.
Austrian Permanent Representative Jan Kickert emphasized to the audience that mountains will see a great deal of change over the next few decades. The ambassador added that mountain conservation is a “crucial role of all of humanity,” and as developed nations, it is “our job to help mountainous [developing] countries.”
International Mountain Day Presentations
Andorra representatives Joan Lopez and Landry Riba started off the day’s discussions. Riba stated that the average altitude in Andorra is 1,996 meters, making the majority of the region mountainous. Climatology is a dynamic factor affecting agricultural activity in Andorra; livestock and tobacco are two main agricultural topics of concern. To withstand current and future climate variability, Andorra will move toward resilient thinking in its agricultural sector through action planning, joint efforts with other sectors, and crop diversification and research.
Ben Orlove, a professor at Columbia University and GlacierHub editor, spoke at the event and referenced research documenting the intensified rate of warming in mountain environments. Orlove discussed the impacts of glacial retreat on water availability, glacial lake outburst floods, and evolving indigenous traditions. Orlove stated that there is a “strong call for adaptation of mountain communities.” He expressed the value in learning from indigenous peoples in order to prepare mountain communities and to adapt to a changing climate.
George Grusso, an FAO representative, explained that “what happens in the mountains has an impact on the rest of the world.” He emphasized that people around the world rely on mountains for a number of products, including tea, rice, silk, lentils, beans and coffee.
During the event, Grusso announced the Mountain Partnership/FAO and UNDP’s Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme which aims to improve livelihoods of mountain communities by helping producers obtain fair pricing for their goods. Yoko Watanabe, a UNDP representative, added that the program is ongoing in 24 countries and in over 30 mountain ecosystem-specific projects.
Andrew Jensen and Samuel Elzinga, student representatives from Utah Valley University, spoke about the Utah International Mountain Forum, which promotes youth involvement in the environmental movement, water conservation, recycling and paper consumption reduction.
#MountainsMatter: Key Messages
#MountainsMatter was the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day. The hashtag’s purpose aimed to spread awareness around rates of temperature increase in mountain regions throughout the world and emphasize how change to mountains will influence everyone.
Mountains cover roughly 22 percent of the earth’s land surfaces and provide between 60-80 percent of all freshwater resources, according to UN Facts & Figures. Mountains matter to a variety of people for a variety of different reasons, and more people will continue to be affected as temperatures rise and mountain glaciers retreat.
Click on the FAO video below to learn more about why #MountainsMatter.
A Recent UN Declaration Offers Recognition of Human Rights in Rural Areas
On 28 September, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), meeting in Geneva, passed a resolution which calls for the UN General Assembly to adopt the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.” This proposed declaration includes a number of rights, and specifically mentions that water resources in mountain ecosystems should be protected against pollution from mining activities.
In recent decades, this pollution has had serious consequences for drinking water and irrigation in mountain regions, including the glacier-rich regions of the Andes and the Tien Shan. The declaration specifically mentions these uses of water, and could serve to protect mountain communities against mining activities which harm their livelihoods and well-being.
This resolution is the outcome of sustained efforts by peasant groups in recent decades and builds on the successful efforts of indigenous peoples to gain recognition within the UNHRC and other international organizations. It follows on a proposal, first brought in 2000 and 2001 by Indonesian peasant organizations to La Via Campesina (LVC), an international peasant movement founded in 1993 in broad opposition to the negative consequences of globalization for peasants and other rural working people. The initial proposal was modified and adopted by the UNHRC’s Advisory Committee in 2013, with significant input from peasant organizations and academic researchers. Bolivia, a country with a long history of indigenous and peasants movements, played a leading role in building coalitions with other Latin American countries and African countries to promote the resolution. The resolution also drew support from a number of civil society organizations which focus on rural issues of land, labor, livelihoods and food security.
In a recent interview with GlacierHub, Marc Edelman, a professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, stated that the proposed declaration “reiterates many rights that are protected under other international agreements, but it also establishes that peasants in some cases have a collective right to land and that they have the right to save, exchange and plant their own seeds, something that is limited or banned in most countries by seed certification laws and the 1991 international treaty which governs seed varieties.”
The Peruvian anthropologist Jorge Recharte, director of The Mountain Institute’s Andean Program, underscored this importance of collective land rights. He told GlacierHub, “In the specific context of Peru, this declaration provides support to efforts by grassroots movements in the Andes that are fighting to promote their right to be recognized as indigenous, original peoples.” He stated that, in Peru alone, “the rights to land” of “nearly six thousand peasant communities … have to be affirmed and secured.”
Drawing on his long experience with LVC and the UNHRC, Edelman also noted that the proposed declaration established a right to “food sovereignty.” The UNHRC defines it in Article 15 as “the right to determine … food and agriculture systems, [including] the right to participate in decision-making processes on food and agriculture policy and the right to healthy and adequate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods that respect [rural] cultures.”
The Next Steps within the United Nations and Beyond
Edelman described the steps that may follow on the UNHRC resolution. He indicated that the Third Committee (on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues) of the UN General Assembly in New York is scheduled to vote on the declaration on October 25, and that the General Assembly itself will vote on it in December, with approval being likely. This step would raise the statement from a resolution (a statement of the will of the council) to a declaration (a more formal statement of the intent of the entire UN). Edelman noted, “Implementation is, of course, the biggest challenge, as with other human rights instruments and national-level laws,” since declarations do not have the force of treaties. Anthony Bebbington, a professor of geography at Clark University, agreed with this point. He told GlacierHub, “Getting national authorities to recognize and act upon this declaration will be one of the next struggles.”
Dirk Salomons, director of the Humanitarian Policy Track at the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia University noted these difficulties as well. In an interview with GlacierHub, he stated “a ‘Declaration’ has no legal validity— it is not an instrument that can be ratified by member states and, once it has a majority, become international law.” However, he added that some organizations are sensitive to declarations. He added, “Governments, the private sector, and large international organizations such as the World Bank or the new, Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank should review their practices and take corrective action where needed. Much of this also ties in with policies to prevent natural disasters.”
This specific character of resolutions was echoed by Elazar Barkan, a professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. In an interview with GlacierHub, he noted that declarations, though lacking full legal force, can nonetheless be powerful, and cited the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example. He qualified the recent UNHRC resolution as “a mid-level victory.” In the current context, where human rights have been “under tremendous pressure” in recent years from populist and authoritarian regimes, Barkan suggested that this resolution not only offers support to peasants and other rural people, but also represents an important broad effort for human rights in general. He hopes that “a new norm will be established” through food sovereignty, which recognizes the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, and which values food, not only through an “economic calculus,” but also as a component of the human right to “cultural diversity.” He took particular encouragement from the strong support that the resolution received in the UNHRC, with 33 votes in favor, and only 11 opposed and 3 abstentions. This majority is stronger than many other resolutions receive.
Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan, emphasized the importance of environmental protections in the resolution. In particular, Article 21 contains a paragraph which serves to support mountain communities in their efforts to limit mining, which damages glaciers and entire watersheds.
States shall protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes, from overuse and contamination by harmful substances, in particular by industrial effluent and concentrated minerals and chemicals that result in slow and fast poisoning.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Satke described his experiences in rural areas in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, where “pastoralists and nomadic communities have undoubtedly come under pressure due to the extractive industry activity.” Recognizing weak governance in some mountain regions, he noted that “the declaration may have an impact on how foreign corporations will conduct operations in countries with dysfunctional judiciary systems. The local communities may have more legal tools to seek justice internationally if their rights are violated by the foreign enterprises.”
Edelman offered a succinct overview of the resolution’s significance
One of the arguments that peasant activists frequently assert is that having “all” the rights in one place — that is, in one instrument — will make it easier to defend those rights, in national courts and in mass mobilizations. The multiple assaults on rural livelihoods from agribusiness and mining corporations, from repressive governments, and from globalized markets have made it clear that peasants and other rural people constitute a vulnerable group, in the sense that “vulnerable” is applied in international law to indigenous peoples, women, children, the disabled, and others. The Peasants’ Rights Declaration is intended to recognize this and to provide some measure of protection.
In this week’s Video of the Week, check out the sport of Kok Boru, or goat polo, at the World Nomad Games held in Kyrgyzstan. The games were initiated by the Kyrgyzstan government in 2012 to help revive and preserve the culture of nomadic civilization. The first event took place in 2014 in Cholpon-Ata in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyzstan. This year’s games took place September 3 to 8 in Cholpon-Ata with over 3,000 athletes from 77 countries participating. In this video, athletes compete in Kok Boru, where the aim is to get a goat or calf carcass into a goal.
This week, travel back in time to 1953 through this video showcasing a Soviet expedition to Tian Shan, a large system of mountain ranges located in Central Asia. The video, shared by journalist Ryskeldi Satke, shows the expedition to South Engilchek Glacier. The glacier is the sixth largest non-polar glacier in the world, at about 60.5 km in length, and the largest and fastest moving glacier in Kyrgyzstan.
The expedition was taken to name a peak after Chinese-Soviet friendship when the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was in place during the 1950s. In time to celebrate this World Cup season, the video also shows a high-altitude soccer match, where players play to win not a cup but a cake!
Soviet expedition to Tian Shan in 1953 through Stalin ridge to South Engilchek Glacier (60km overall length back then). Soccer match in between at the altitude of 3,200 meters for a cake. Purpose of this trip was to name a peak after Chinese-Soviet friendship. cc @GlacierHubpic.twitter.com/cScsF6qtwt
This Photo Friday, journey to the mountains of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau through breathtaking photographs from Marc Foggin, acting director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A conservation biologist specializing in the mountain environments of Asia, Foggin has over twenty years of experience traversing the glacierized landscapes of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. His research primarily explores the complex human dimensions of conservation, natural resource management and community development.
His photography extends beyond the region too, capturing his adventures across the world from Nepal to Kenya to Norway to Hawaii and beyond. This week’s post showcases a few of Foggin’s landscape photographs from the Hindu-Kush, Tianshan mountains, and the Tibetan Plateau.
Check out more of Marc Foggin’s photography from across the world here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kyrgyzstan -Allows Mining Companies to Drill Glaciers
From AKIpress: “Government of Kyrgyzstan won’t recall draft amendments to the water code of Kyrgyzstan that allow glacier mining in the country… This statement called outcry among those gathered. The participants of the round-table discussion condemned the government.”
Learn more about the protests against the new law here.
Alaska’s Glacial Runoff Contributes to Coastal Marine Food Webs
From Global Change Biology: “Nearly half of the freshwater discharge into the Gulf of Alaska originates from landscapes draining glacier runoff, but the influence of the influx of riverine organic matter on the trophodynamics of coastal marine food webs is not well understood… This work demonstrates linkages between terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and facilitates a greater understanding of how climate-driven changes in freshwater runoff have the potential to alter food web dynamics within coastal marine ecosystems in Alaska.”
From Rap-Up: “Brrr! Gucci Mane isn’t stopping. Fresh off the debut of Mr. Davis, the newlywed has already announced his next album, El Gato the Human Glacier […] which translates to The Cat the Human Glacier, [and] is set to follow the success of Mr. Davis, which opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 70,000 units (21,000 traditional) in its first week.”
Learn more about Gucci Mane’s announcement of a new album here.
Phillip Baumgart is a Colorado-born photographer and educator who has recently been working in the heavily glaciated terrains of China and Kyrgyzstan. He specializes in travel and portrait photography, and his images have appeared in Lonely Planet Magazine and China Daily. He has taken on pro-bono assignments for numerous NGOs, such as Catalyst Asia and Babushka Adoption. See more of his images at philbaum.com or on Instagram at @ladystem.
From Water: “This paper investigates physical processes in the four sub-basins of Ngozumpa glacier’s terminal Spillway Lake for the period 2012–2014 in order to characterize lake deepening and mass transfer processes. Quantifying the growth and deepening of this terminal lake is important given its close vicinity to Sherpa villages down-valley… In areas of rapid deepening, where low mean bottom temperatures prevail, thin debris cover or bare ice is present. This finding is consistent with previously reported localized regions of lake deepening and is useful in predicting future deepening.”
You can read more about glacier lake deepening here.
Narwhals To Help Monitor Melting Glaciers
From New Scientist: “An iconic whale species will soon be aiding climate change research. Narwhals are spending more time near melting sea ice and researchers hope to exploit this new behavior by tagging the mammals with temperature sensors to help us accurately monitor underwater sea ice melt for the first time.”
You can read more about narwhals–marine mammals, once confused with unicorns–and glacier monitoring here.
A Study of Water Stress in Kyrgyzstan
From Water: “Water vulnerabilities in Central Asia are affected by a complex combination of climate-sensitive water sources, trans-boundary political tensions, infrastructure deficiencies and a lack of water management organization from community to federal levels. This study aims to clarify the drivers of water stress across the 440 km Naryn River basin, headwater stem to the Syr Darya and the disappearing North Aral Sea… Surveys indicate that current water stress is primarily a function of water management and access issues resulting from the clunky transition from Soviet era large-scale agriculture to post-Soviet small-plot farming. Snow and ice meltwaters play a dominant role in the surface and ground water supplies to downstream communities across the study’s 4220 m elevation gradient, so future increases to water stress due to changes in volume and timing of water supply is likely given frozen waters’ high sensitivities to warming temperatures. The combined influence of social, political and climate-induced pressures on water supplies in the Naryn basin suggest the need for proactive planning and adaptation strategies, and warrant concern for similar melt-sourced Central Asian watersheds.”
You can read about this challenging situation here.
A version of this article was published in The Diplomat on December 13, 2016.
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.”
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 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.
Last fall, I traveled in the upper Naryn River valley in Kyrgyzstan, taking part in a field trip organized by the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Society Research Institute. This organization put me in touch with a local researcher, Samat Kalmuratov, who accompanied me on visits to villages and nature reserves, serving as guide and interpreter.
The Naryn River drains the high glaciated peaks of the Tien Shan range in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It flows westward, forming the Syr Darya at its confluence with the Kara Darya River, and continuing through the agricultural Fergana Valley into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In former times, it reached the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake.
These photographs of the river, its valley and inhabitants show both significant continuity and major changes in recent decades.