from Sunday Herald, 26 December 2010
There’s an atomic lake, a disappearing sea, a top secret biological weapons dump and hundreds of millions of tonnes of radioactive waste. Food is contaminated, babies are deformed and illness is widespread.
Welcome to central Asia, home to some of the world’s worst environmental disasters. But they are disasters that could come to haunt us all, according to an alarming new prediction from a veteran Scottish politician appointed as an international ambassador for the area.
Poisonous radioactive pollution could leak into rivers and end up contaminating the Arctic and other oceans, warned Struan Stevenson, the Conservative Euro-MP for Scotland. “The Soviet nuclear legacy may yet become a world catastrophe,” he said.
“It would be a grave error to think that this problem is in a far away country about which we know little and therefore can have no impact on us in the West. This is a man-made environmental problem of global significance.”
Stevenson has launched a campaign to bring the plight of central Asia to the attention of the Scottish public. This month he began a series of lectures at universities across Scotland on what he calls “Stalin’s legacy”.
For more than ten years he has been visiting and researching the area, meeting leaders from several countries. Earlier this year he was chosen to be the personal environmental representative of the Kazakhstan chair of the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
His interest was first kindled in 1999 with a visit to a remote area of Semipalatinsk in east Kazakhstan known as the Polygon. It was the testing zone where the former Soviet Union exploded more than 600 nuclear weapons between 1949 and 1990.
“The legacy of these horrific experiments is everywhere to see,” recounted Stevenson. “Seepage from the underground tests has polluted watercourses and streams. Farmland has been heavily irradiated. Radioactive contamination has entered the food chain.”
The resulting ill-health has been shocking. “Cancers run at five times the national average. Birth defects are three times the national average. Babies and farm animals are born with terrible deformities,” he asserted.
“Children are mentally retarded and Downs Syndrome is common. Virtually all children suffer from anaemia. Many of the young men are impotent. Many young women are afraid to become pregnant in case they give birth to defective babies.”
A large “atomic lake” was deliberately created by some of the underground tests at the Polygon. According to Stevenson, there is now evidence that cracks in the rock have allowed radioactive contaminants like plutonium and strontium to leak into the River Irtysh, which ends up in the Arctic Ocean.
The Euro-MP has also been involved in the battle to save the Aral Sea, which lies between
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It used to be the fourth largest inland body of water in the world.
But over the last 50 years it has shrunk by 88%, virtually disappearing every summer. The two huge rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate the former Soviet Union’s vast cotton plantations.
Munyak in Uzbekistan was once a bustling port on the Aral Sea where 500 fishing vessels landed 30,000 tonnes of fish a year. “Now crumbling fishing boats lie on their sides in the desert sand,” said Stevenson.
“Today, you have to travel more than 100 miles from Muynak to reach the sea. Unbelievably this global catastrophe did not take centuries to materialise – it happened in the course of one generation.”
He added: “Now swirling toxic dust storms carry the residues of salt from the exposed seabed and DDT sprayed on the cotton crops in Soviet times, causing widespread erosion and pollution over an area of three million hectares, devastating the health of the local population.”
As if that were not enough, the retreat of the Aral Sea has also exposed another danger: Vozrozhdeniya Island. Between 1954 and 1992 this was a top-secret Soviet testing ground and store for biological weapons including anthrax, the plague, typhus and smallpox.
Known in English as Resurrection Island, it ceased being an island in 2001 as the waters receded. Despite an official clean-up, there are now concerns that lethal organisms could persist and be spread by rats, looters or terrorists.
Another problem is the vast amount of radioactive waste from hundreds of uranium mines used to fuel Soviet nuclear weapons and power stations. According to Stevenson, there are a staggering 812 million tonnes of uranium waste scattered in dumps across central Asia.
“Needless to say, many of the dumps have been neglected for decades,” he warned. “Their condition has deteriorated significantly and they pose a serious ecological threat.”
In 2002, after six weeks of torrential rain, the Mailuu-Suu River in Kyrgyzstan threatened to flood a uranium dump. “Had the river broken its banks, tens of thousands of tonnes of highly radioactive material would have been washed downstream, causing widespread pollution and devastation,” he said. “This is an accident waiting to happen.”
In his lectures, Stevenson will also highlight the risks of wider environmental problems, like water shortages, land degradation and climate change. “The whole area is like a bubbling environmental cauldron,” he said.
He called on global, national and regional agencies to cooperate to help alleviate the suffering of the central Asian population. “Only by working together will we be able effectively to address the acute environmental problems that plague the region,” he said.
Stevenson’s campaign was warmly endorsed last week by experts and aid agencies. “Central Asia is a horrendous example of long-term poor environmental management for which millions of people are suffering,” said Sarah O’Hara, a professor of geography at the University of Nottingham who has studied the area.
John Cunningham, a director at Mercy Corps, applauded Stevenson’s efforts to help those affected by the “forgotten crisis” at the Polygon. “There is no doubt that Struan’s efforts have helped to improve the lives of a great many people,” he said. “In our view, he is a humanitarian hero.”