The Soviets regarded Kazakhstan as a convenient place to test nuclear and biological weapons and locate polluting industries. Radioactive or toxic chemical sites associated with former defense industries and test ranges scattered throughout the country pose health risks for humans and animals. Industrial pollution is severe in some cities. Pollution in the Caspian Sea is also a problem. Soil pollution from overuse of agricultural chemicals and salination from poor infrastructure and wasteful irrigation practices. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Most of Kazakhstan’s water supply has been polluted by industrial and agricultural runoff and, in some places, radioactivity. Desertification has eliminated substantial tracts of agricultural land. Plants in industrial centers lack controls on effluents into the air and water. The Semey region in the northeast has long-term radiation contamination from Soviet-era weapons testing. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is underfunded and given low priority. Some new environmental regulation of the oil industry began in 2003, but expanding oil operations on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast add to that sea’s already grave pollution. International programs to save the Aral and Caspian seas have not received meaningful cooperation from Kazakhstan or other member nations. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

The Aral Sea, which is shared with Uzbekistan, has shrunk to three separate bodies of water. Because the two main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea have been diverted for irrigation, it is drying up and leaving behind a harmful layer of chemical pesticides and natural salts; these substances are then picked up by the wind and blown into noxious dust storms; A Soviet-era biological weapons site is a threat because it is located on a former island in the Aral Sea that is now connected with the mainland. The reduction in the Aral Sea’s water surface has exacerbated regional climatic extremes, and agricultural soil has been damaged by salt deposits and eroded by wind. ** =

Environmental international agreements: party to: Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands; signed, but not ratified: Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol. =

Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 224.2 million Mt (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 28. =

Pollution in Kazakhstan

Industrial pollution is a concern in Kazakhstan's manufacturing cities, where aging factories pump huge quantities of unfiltered pollutants into the air and groundwater. Almaty, is particularly threatened, in part because of the postindependence boom in private automobile ownership. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

There is air pollution from iron and steel factories and industries that use low-grade coal. Plants in industrial centers lack controls on effluents into the air and water. Zinc and lead smelters and uranium processing plants have polluted cities in eastern Kazakhstan.

In some big cities and industrial centers concentrations of some toxic substances, such as heavy metal dust, sulfur dioxide, carbon oxide, and some others, exceed maximum permissible concentrations (MPC) greater by more than tens of time. The most acute situations are in the cities of Taraz, Temirtau, Almaty, Oskemen, Leninogor, Shymkent and Balkash. Pollutant concentrations in these cities are five to ten times greater than MPC limits. [Source: Alia S. Beisenova Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University, 2010]

The air in the regions, where mineral resources are exploited is significantly polluted. Pollution is also caused by rockets launching at the Baikonur space center. Industrial pollution is aggravated by large-scale chemical pollution caused by agriculture. Various chemical used for plant protection, defoliants, pesticides, and fertilizers pollute both the environmental and food. [Ibid]

Tengiz Oil Field Pollution

Oil pumped from Tengiz Field contains high levels of hydrogen sulfide. Processing it generates huge pools of blood red sulfur that dries into 11-meter tall yellow slabs that are stacked neatly and sold to chemical companies and other buyers. As of 2001, about 4.4 million tons of sulfur had been produced.

Exxon and Chevron, who have a 75 percent stake in Tengiz, insist the sulfur doesn’t cause any long term health problems. Environmentalist disagree. They say that workers at the field and people that live in the area have unusually high mortality rates.

Soviet exploitation of Tengiz Field was sloppy and poorly managed. As a reminder of this there are many pools of oil scum on the steppe. In 1985 a well caught on fire and burned for a year, producing bright shards of crystallized sand and oily plumes that drifted to the north and was picked up by satellites. The disaster killed more than a million birds.

The operations managed by Western companies are much more environmentally friendly. Pollutants are burned in gas flares and water bodies around the oil complex are home to flamingos and other birds.

Water Pollution in Kazakhstan

Most of Kazakhstan’s water supply has been polluted by industrial and agricultural runoff and, in some places, radioactivity. Lake Balkhash — Kazakhstan’s and Central Asia’s largets lake — has been polluted by copper smelters. Significant shallowing also threatens Lake Balkash. Its western part can dry out completely while its eastern part can turn into salty land.

About 35 to 40 percent of the water the drains into Syr Darya in Kazakhstan is contaminated with industrial and communal waste waters. Pathogens of dysentery, enteric fever, paratyphoid, hepatitis, and hazardous substances such as DDT, benzene hexachlonde (BHC) have been found in water samples. [Source: Alia S. Beisenova Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University, 2010]

Aral Sea and Caspian Sea

The most visible damage has been to the Aral Sea, which as recently as the 1970s was larger than any of the Great Lakes of North America save Lake Superior. The sea began to shrink rapidly when sharply increased irrigation and other demands on the only significant tributaries, the Syrdariya and the Amu Darya (the latter reaching the Aral from neighboring Uzbekistan), all but eliminated inflow. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

By 1993 the Aral Sea had lost an estimated 60 percent of its volume, in the process breaking into three unconnected segments. Increasing salinity and reduced habitat have killed the Aral Sea's fish, hence destroying its once-active fishing industry, and the receding shoreline has left the former port of Aral'sk more than sixty kilometers from the water's edge. The depletion of this large body of water has increased temperature variations in the region, which in turn have had an impact on agriculture. *

A much greater agricultural impact, however, has come from the salt- and pesticide-laden soil that the wind is known to carry as far away as the Himalaya Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Deposition of this heavily saline soil on nearby fields effectively sterilizes them. Evidence suggests that salts, pesticides, and residues of chemical fertilizers are also adversely affecting human life around the former Aral Sea; infant mortality in the region approaches 10 percent, compared with the 1991 national rate of 2.7 percent. *

The water level of the Caspian Sea has been rising steadily since 1978 for reasons that scientists have not been able to explain fully. At the northern end of the sea, more than a million hectares of land in Atyrau Province have been flooded. Experts estimate that if current rates of increase persist, the coastal city of Atyrau, eighty-eight other population centers, and many of Kazakhstan's Caspian oil fields could be submerged by 2020. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

See Separate Article of the Aral Sea and Caspian Sea

Environmental Effects of Nuclear Testing

The gravest environmental threat to Kazakhstan comes from radiation, especially in the Semey (Semipalatinsk) region of the northeast. Semipalatinsk was the primary nuclear testing site in the Soviet Union. The Soviets regarded Kazakhstan as a convenient place to test nuclear weapons. Between 1949 and 1989, the Semipalatinsk Test Site was one of the primary locations for Soviet above and below ground nuclear testing. The first Soviet nuclear weapons test, codenamed Pervaya molniya or First Lighting, took place at Semipalatinsk on August 29 1949. In total, 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric tests, were conducted at Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities as part of an effort that created the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative]

Often, such tests were conducted without evacuating or even alerting the local population. Some of the tests cracked walls in towns 50 miles a way. One test in August 1949 blanketed the town of Dolon, 60 miles from ground zero, with radioactive fallout after the wind suddenly changed direction.

Semipalatinsk was the world’s largest nuclear test range. It covers 18,500 square miles, making it roughly the size of Indiana. The city of Semipalatinsk is about 100 miles from the testing site. It was home to 200,000 people while the tests were going and is home to around 350,00 people now. There is some discussion about opening up parts of the test range farming and cattle raising,

Environmental Effects of Nuclear Testing

Semipalatinsk is contaminated with high levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. According to one estimate 19 million acres of land in Kazakhstan has been rendered unusable by tests. The temperature of the ground in and around the testing is higher than elsewhere in Kazakhstan, in some cases by 15 degrees C. Some places are devoid of snow in the winter and show up as hot on satellite images.

Radiation leaks out from the tunnels at the site. Scavengers have stolen copper and other metals from the radioactive tunnels at Semipalatinsk. The scale of the problem became clear in 1996 when China complained that the copper sold to it by a Kazakh company was radioactive.

An estimated 230 millions tons of radioactive waste is buried in Kazakhstan. Of this 179 million tons is highly radioactive. Most of it was created during the production of uranium for nuclear weapons, atomic experiments and fuel for nuclear power plants.

In 1956, a nuclear bomb was detonated underground to create a reservoir 65 miles southwest of Semey. Large amounts of radiation was released into the atmosphere at the time of the blast and was blown into populated areas. The reservoir is now called Atomic Lake.

Health Problems Related to Nuclear Testing

Although nuclear testing was halted in 1990, radiation poisoning, birth defects, severe anemia, and leukemia are very common in the area. An estimated 1.2 million people were exposed to above normal doses or radiation around Semipalatinsk. According to some calculations some people were exposed to the same amount of radiation as the people that people were a half kilometer from ground zero of the of the Hiroshima explosion.

One man, who lived 43 miles from the testing site, told AP that whenever a bomb was exploded he was told by his teacher to run into the steppe and lie face down on the ground. “Who would really lie down?” the man said. “We were kids. Everyone wanted to look, watch the plane, and see the mushroom.” By the 1990s, he, his four brothers and three sisters all suffered from varying degrees of stomach cancer.

The rate of stillborn births, birth defects and cancer is high among the people living around Semipalatinsk. According to some estimates, 300,000 people have suffered from the effects from the radiation, including offspring of the people that were actually exposed to radiation. Many families in the area gave one, two or three malformed children. Affects have spread to the third generation. One boy pictue, There is one boy with a distorted head, who eyes are completely swollen shut. Rates of lung, stomach and skin cancers are particularly high. Investigators, though, have a difficult time distinguishing between problems caused by radiation and those caused by poverty and other reasons and thus shy away saying there is a direct link between these health problems and radiation.

The government ordered that all radiation victims be given a one-time compensation payment based on how close they lived to Semipalatinsk and for how long. The payments ranged from 25 percent to five times the minimum monthly wages—with the money paid being as low as $5 a month—for each person who lived on or near the site.

Clean Up of Nuclear Weapons Sites in Kazakhstan

In 1993, the government informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of their concern about the radiological situation in Semipalatinsk and also western areas, and asked for the IAEA's help to characterize and evaluate the radiological situation at the Semipalatinsk test site. Three IAEA missions ensued over 1993-98, and identified a few areas with elevated residual radioactivity. As there are no restrictions on resettlement of the area, monitoring of residents and visitors was undertaken, showing exposure of up to 10 mSv/yr. However, if the "hot spots" were permanently settled, exposures of up to 140 mSv/yr could result. The IAEA concluded that due to budgetary and other constraints, the most appropriate remedial action initially would be to restrict access by people and cattle to those areas. [Source: world-nuclear.org */]

Following a three-year study on an experimental farm on the site, where the radioactivity levels in milk, meat, and various crops and vegetables grown was carefully monitored, in 2009 the NNC suggested that the northern portion of the area could be returned to commercial use since radiation levels were very low, and close to background. The IAEA final report submitted to the government in January 2011 supported this recommendation. The Environment Ministry is expected to make a decision on opening up much of the land for grazing. A joint US-Russian project with Kazakh assistance over 1996-2012 removed a significant quantity of high-enriched uranium and plutonium from the Semipalatinsk site, and encased more material in concrete. */

Radioactive Waste Management in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has a major legacy of radioactive wastes from uranium mining, nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons testing, industrial activities, coal mining and oilfields. A specific law covers radioactive waste management, and a new radioactive waste storage and disposal system is under consideration. Decommissioning of the BN-350 fast reactor at Aktau (known as Shevchenko from 1964 to 1992) is under way, with extensive international support. Used fuel has been stored at site, as is 1000 tonnes of radioactive sodium. [Source: world-nuclear.org +]

In 1997, the USA and Kazakh governments agreed to undertake a joint program to improve safety and security for the plutonium-bearing spent fuel from the BN-350 reactor. By the end of 2001, all of this material had been inventoried, put under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and placed in 2800 one-tonne 4 metre-long storage canisters, with more-radioactive and less-radioactive fuel packaged together, so that each canister would be self-protecting, making the fuel elements far more difficult to steal. This was necessary because much of the spent fuel had been cooling for so long, and was so lightly irradiated to begin with, that some of the individual fuel assemblies were no longer radioactive enough to be "self-protecting" against theft. The USA and Kazakhstan agreed to ship the material to the area of the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in northeast Kazakhstan, west and south of Kurchatov city for storage, and the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) designed and purchased dual-purpose transport and storage casks for that purpose. These were made at a former torpedo factory in Kazakhstan. +\

Some 3000 fuel assemblies – about 300 tonnes containing 3 tonnes of plutonium – were removed from the reactor site in 12 shipments over 2009-10 under US supervision, and were transported about 3000 kilometers by train to a secure storage facility in Semlpalatinsk. This is licensed for 50 years, and the Kazakh government will be responsible for the ultimate disposition of the fuel beyond that. About 10 tonnes of fresh high-enriched uranium was sent to the Ulba plant at Ust-Kamenogorsk for downblending to low-enriched uranium. +\

The Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) hosted about 470 nuclear weapons tests in the Soviet era and there remains a significant legacy of environmental damage there. The site was closed in 1991. The USA and Russia worked together over 1996 to 2012 with Kazakhstan to secure the former test site, which is bigger than the American state of New Jersey. The focus was on waste plutonium. +\

Biological Weapons Testing at Vozrozhdeniye Island

A top-secret facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: Located on Vozrozhdeniya Island—which, now that the sea is gone, is no longer an island—the facility was the main test site for the Soviet military’s Microbiological Warfare Group. Thousands of animals were shipped to the island, where they were subjected to anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and other biological agents. The U.S. State Department, concerned that rusting drums of anthrax could fall into the wrong hands, sent a cleanup team there in 2002. No biological agents have been found in the dust since then, but sporadic outbreaks of plague afflict the surrounding region. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 +/]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time. |:|

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120 degrees F to prevent the spread of the pathogens. |:|

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said. |:|

Vozrozhdeniye Island In the Early 2000s

Vozrozhdeniye Island, now shared by shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the level of the Aral Sea has dropped the island has become a peninsula connected to the mainland. The peninsula is uninhabited except for the occasion scavenger that goes there. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Large amounts of the strain of anthrax that killed people in Sverdlovsk are buried in pits on Vozrozhdeniye Island. There are concerns that terrorists could collect disease samples of the diseases could spread through animals or people that visit the site. Uzbekistan is particularly concerned because it plans to drill for oil near where the anthrax is stored. |:|

One of the greatest worries is that wild rodents that live at the range and were exposed to weapons-grade plague may have survived, The plague that was used was not affected by antibiotics and is more contagious than the natural kinds. If this strain somehow spread to a scavenger and then the people there could be a very serious problem.

In 1995, an American teams discovered live anthrax spores on Vozrozhdeniye Island. At that time the United States earmarked $6 million for a program to decontaminate the site.

Desertification and Overgrazing in Kazakhstan

Desertification, erosion and overgrazing are serious problems in Kazakhstan. Desertification has eliminated substantial tracts of agricultural land. Wind erosion has had an impact in the northern and central parts of the republic because of the introduction of wide-scale dryland wheat farming. In the 1950s and 1960s, much soil was lost when vast tracts of Kazakhstan's prairies were plowed under as part of Khrushchev's Virgin Lands agricultural project. By the mid-1990s, an estimated 60 percent of the republic's pastureland was in various stages of desertification. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Overgrazing is a serious problem in all of the Central Asian countries. Too many animals on too little land has resulted in desertification and soil erosion. According to some estimates it will take 10 to 50 years for overused grazing and agricultural land to be restored.

According to the Kazakhstan government: “Soil protection from water and wind erosion, control over salinization through the introduction of the appropriate crop rotation, planting of the forest shelter belts, consolidation and afforestation of gullies and ravines, land reclamation are important directions of environmental protection. Erosion control measures are performed in the republic within the area exceeding 20,000,000 ha. [Source: Alia S. Beisenova Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University, 2010]

Forestry and Fishing in Kazakhstan

Of the 4.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s territory that is forested, about 9 percent is nominally protected. Forest land is concentrated along the Chinese and Kyrgyz border and north of the Fergana Valley. Kazakhstan produces a small amount of timber for export, but imports of timber products far outnumber exports. In 2004 a total of 300,000 cubic meters of wood were harvested, the majority of which was used as fuel. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Much attention is given in Kazakhstan to the forest protection and to the development of reserves. Limits on economic activity have been established for a considerable part of Kazakhstan’s forests. Reforestation is performed yearly within the area of up to 90,000 ha. [Source: Alia S. Beisenova Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University, 2010]

The desiccation of the Aral Sea ruined a prosperous fishing and fish-processing industry. In the Caspian Sea, stocks of sturgeon and other fish have been depleted sharply by pollution, poaching, and overfishing. Kazakhstan has developed some sturgeon farms to replace the wild stock. In 2003 the total catch was 23,100 tons. **

Until the early 1990s, western Kazakhstan was an important fishing area, but sharply increased salination has made the Aral Sea sterile. Fishing output dropped from 105,300 tons in 1960 to 89,600 tons in 1989. The current figure is probably close to zero, judging by the decision of Soviet central planners in 1990 to fly Arctic fish to Kazakhstan for processing as a means of maintaining local employment in that operation. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhstan Government and the Environment

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is underfunded and given low priority. Some new environmental regulation of the oil industry began in 2003, but expanding oil operations on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast add to that sea’s already grave pollution. International programs to save the Aral and Caspian seas have not received meaningful cooperation from Kazakhstan or other member nations. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

With some conspicuous exceptions, lip service has been the primary official response to Kazakhstan's ecological problems... In the 1990s, the descendant government has established a Ministry of Ecology and Bioresources, with a separate administration for radioecology, but the ministry's programs are underfunded and given low priority. In 1994 only 23 percent of budgeted funds were actually allotted to environmental programs. Many official meetings and conferences are held (more than 300 have been devoted to the problem of the Aral Sea alone), but few practical programs have gone into operation. In 1994 the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United States Environmental Protection Agency agreed to give Kazakhstan US$62 million to help the country overcome ecological problems. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Environmental international agreements: party to: Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands; signed, but not ratified: Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

According to pro-government academics: “In order to protect the environment in the republic measures are worked out and implemented, which are aimed at rational use of the Earth’s mineral resources (combined use of mineral resources, land reclamation and planting on former dumps, etc.), waste water treatment, reduction of air pollution caused by industrial enterprises (presently about 80 percent of hazardous substances emitted by the stationary sources of air pollution are caught and neutralized), implementation of wasteless technologies and water recycling systems, development of environmentally appropriate energy sources and modes or transportation, economic stimulating of resource conservation, substitution of biological plant protection for chemical one, etc.” [Source: Alia S. Beisenova Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University, 2010]

Environmental Groups in Kazakhstan

In February 1989, opposition to Soviet nuclear testing and its ill effects in Kazakhstan led to the creation of one of the republic's largest and most influential grass-roots movements, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, which was founded by Kazakh poet and public figure Olzhas Suleymenov. In the first week of the movement's existence, Nevada-Semipalatinsk gathered more than 2 million signatures from Kazakhstanis of all ethnic groups on a petition to Gorbachev demanding the end of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. After a year of demonstrations and protests, the test ban took effect in 1990. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Once its major ecological objective was achieved, Nevada-Semipalatinsk made various attempts to broaden into a more general political movement; it has not pursued a broad ecological or "green" agenda. A very small green party, Tagibat, made common cause with the political opposition in the parliament of 1994. *

In recent environmental activist have been harassed and thrown in jail. Antoine Blua of Radio Free Europe wrote: In Kazakhstan, leading human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis was recently transferred to a labor camp after receiving the maximum sentence for vehicular manslaughter after striking and killing a man in a car accident. The United States has been critical of the harsh sentence, coming just months before Kazakhstan is to take over chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009]

“Svetlana Anosova, the leader of a community group in northwestern Kazakhstan, has faced threats from local government authorities and police. Residents of the village of Berezovka are fighting for relocation and compensation from the environmental harm that they have incurred from the emissions from the nearby Karachaganak oil and gas field. Kazakhstan's Supreme Court ruled in 2008 in favor of the Almaty-based NGO Green Salvation in a precedent-setting lawsuit seeking access to environmental information about atmospheric emissions at Karachaganak. One month later, the provincial administration provided the requested information.” [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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