Current issues in Kyrgyzstan: Water pollution is a problem in some places. Many people get their water directly from contaminated streams and wells. As a result, water-borne diseases are prevalent. Soil salinity is increasing due to faulty irrigation practices. Environment - international agreements: party to: Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Wetlands. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Kyrgyzstan has been spared many of the enormous environmental problems faced by its Central Asian neighbors, primarily because its designated roles in the Soviet system involved neither heavy industry nor large-scale cotton production. Also, the economic downturn of the early 1990s reduced some of the more serious effects of industrial and agricultural policy. Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan has serious problems because of inefficient use and pollution of water resources, land degradation, and improper agricultural practices. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Gold and uranium mining operations have leached toxic chemicals into soil and water in the eastern half of the country, and salinization is a problem along the eastern stretches of the Naryn River. In the post-Soviet era, increased automobile use has made air pollution a problem in urban centers. Glaciers in the Tien Shan are melting. Global warming is believed to be a factor. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

Soviet-era mines caused a great deal of environmental damage. The uranium mines in particular left behind radioactive tailing and contaminated water supplies. The full extent of the damage is unknown. Norway has pledged to help Kyrgyzstan remove a uranium waste dump in the mountainous, southern Mayly Suu area that threatens the Fergana Valley. Many wild rivers are dammed up. Soils in the Osh region are contaminated with DDT.

Only 4 percent of Kyrgyzstan is classified as forested. All of that area is state-owned, and none is classified as available for wood supply. The main commercial product of the forests is walnuts. Kyrgyzstan does not have a significant fishing industry.

Natural Disasters and the Environment in Kyrgyzstan

Natural disasters are frequent and varied. Overgrazing and deforestation of steep mountain slopes have increased the occurrence of mudslides and avalanches, which occasionally have swallowed entire villages. In August 1992, a severe earthquake left several thousand people homeless in the southwestern city of Jalal-Abad. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Overuse of forest reserves also is an environmental issue. In 2004 an unusually high number of avalanches, floods, and landslides was attributed to the melting of glaciers in the eastern mountains. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

According to the OSAC: “ Kyrgyzstan is located in an active seismic zone and is subject to frequent tremors and occasional strong earthquakes. Buildings and homes often do not meet U.S. seismic standards. It is highly recommended to store water, food, and medical supplies to last at least three days. [Source: “Kyrgyzstan 2015 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State <<<]

Water Resources in Kyrgyzstan

Water is one of Kyrgyzstan’s primary resources. Its rivers provide water for irrigation of the Fergana Valley as well as in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Dams on these rivers provide much of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity. The large and impressive Toktogul dam on the Naryn River produces 10 billion kilowatt hours of energy a year, enough to provide electricity for the entire Seattle area.

Catherine Putz wrote in The Diplomat: “Kyrgyzstan, in comparison to some of its downstream neighbors, has a decent supply of water melting off the mountains, but crumbling Soviet infrastructure, rising downstream thirst, and climate change are setting the entire region up for increasing conflict over the vital resource. [Source:Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, June 8, 2015]

Although Kyrgyzstan has abundant water running through it, its water supply is determined by a post-Soviet sharing agreement among the five Central Asian republics. As in the Soviet era, Kyrgyzstan has the right to 25 percent of the water that originates in its territory, but the new agreement allows Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan unlimited use of the water that flows into them from Kyrgyzstan, with no compensation for the nation at the source. Kyrgyzstan uses the entire amount to which the agreement entitles it, but utilization is skewed heavily in favor of agricultural irrigation. In 1994 agriculture accounted for about 88 percent of total water consumption, compared with 8 percent by industry and 4 percent by municipal water distribution systems. According to World Bank experts, Kyrgyzstan has an adequate supply of high-quality water for future use, provided the resource is prudently managed. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Irrigation is extremely wasteful of water because the distribution infrastructure is old and poorly maintained. In 1993 only an estimated 5 percent of required maintenance expenditures was allocated. Overall, an estimated 70 percent of the nation's water supply network is in need of repair or replacement. *

More than 85 percent of arable land in Kyrgyzstan is irrigated. Irrigated land: 10,210 square kilometers (2005). Total renewable water resources: 23.62 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 8.01 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/4 percent/93 percent); per capita: 1,558 cubic kilometers a year (2006) [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

Water Pollution in Kyrgyzstan

The quality of drinking water from this aging system is poorly monitored--the water management staff has been cut drastically because of inadequate funds. Further, there is no money to buy new water disinfection equipment when it is needed. Some aquifers near industrial and mining centers have been contaminated by heavy metals, oils, and sanitary wastes. In addition, many localities rely on surface sources, making users vulnerable to agricultural runoff and livestock waste, which seep gradually downward from the surface. The areas of lowest water quality are the heavily populated regions of the Chu Valley and Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces, and areas along the rivers flowing into Issyk-Kul. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In towns, wastewater collection provides about 70 percent of the water supply. Although towns have biological treatment equipment, as much as 50 percent of such equipment is rated as ineffective. The major sources of toxic waste in the water supply are the mercury mining combine at Haidarkan; the antimony mine at Kadamzai; the Kadzyi Sai uranium mine, which ceased extraction in 1967 but which continues to leach toxic materials into nearby Issyk-Kul; the Kara-Balta Uranium Recovery Plant; the Min Kush deposit of mine tailings; and the Kyrgyz Mining and Metallurgy Plant at Orlovka. *

Drinking water source: 1) improved: urban: 97.1 percent of population; rural: 82.3 percent of population; total: 87.6 percent of population. 2) unimproved: urban: 2.9 percent of population; rural: 17.7 percent of population; total: 12.4 percent of population (2012 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Sanitation facility access: 1) improved: urban: 91.9 percent of population; rural: 91.7 percent of population; total: 91.8 percent of population 2) unimproved: urban: 8.1 percent of population; rural: 8.3 percent of population total: 8.2 percent of population (2012 est.). =

Overgrazing and Poor Land Management in Kyrgyzstan

Overgrazing and desertification are serious problems in all of the Central Asian countries. Too many animals on too little land has resulted in desertification and soil erosion. The number of animal quadrupled to 10 million between 1941 and 1991 while grazing land decreased by a third. An estimated 70 percent of pastureland suffers from erosion rates higher than normal.

A key agricultural resource, pastureland, was degraded severely by the Soviet-era practice of mandating livestock populations too large for available pasturage on state farms and by post-Soviet transfer of livestock from inefficient collective and state farms to private ownership without limiting grazing rights on common pastures. By 1994 over-grazing had led to serious erosion of much pasture land. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The most important problems in land use are soil erosion and salinization in improperly irrigated farmland. An estimated 60 percent of Kyrgyzstan's land is affected by topsoil loss, and 6 percent by salinization, both problems with more serious long-term than short-term effects. In 1994 the size of livestock herds averaged twice the carrying capacity of pasturage land, continuing the serious overgrazing problem and consequent soil erosion that began when the herds were at their peak in the late 1980s. Uncertain land tenure and overall financial insecurity have caused many private farmers to concentrate their capital in the traditional form — livestock — thus subjecting new land to the overgrazing problem. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The inherent land shortage in Kyrgyzstan is exacerbated by the flooding of agricultural areas for hydroelectric projects. The creation of Toktogol Reservoir on the Naryn River, for example, involved the flooding of 13,000 hectares of fertile land. Such projects have the additional effect of constricting downstream water supply; Toktogol deprives the lower reaches of the Syrdariya in Uzbekistan and the Aral Sea Basin of substantial amounts of water. Because the Naryn Basin, where many hydroelectric projects are located, is very active seismically, flooding is also a danger should a dam be broken by an earthquake. Several plants are now in operation in zones where Richter Scale readings may reach eleven.

Kumtor Gold Mine

The Kumtor mine in western Kyrgyzstan — 350 kilometers southeast of Bishkek — is the largest goldmine operated by a Western company in Central Asia. It has been ranked at various times as the world’s fifth largest and seventh largest gold mine. Located at an elevation of 4,000 meters in the Tien Shan, it opened in 1996 at a cost of $452 million and is run by Centerra Gold, a Toronto-based mining company. In the early 2000s, it yielded 19 tons of gold a year, generating 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP and 40 percent of its export income.[Source: Harry Maurer, Business Week, October 29, 2001]

The mine has been at the center of corruption, abuse, and environmental scandals over the years. According to Bankwatch.org: “The seasonal glacier melt-waters and the ground water flow into the mine’s open pit at a rate up to 1000 liters/sec]. After contact with the rock, the water becomes chemically-degraded and is then pumped out and discharged to the environment. [Source: Bankwatch.org *^*]

“The mine's tailings (i.e. chemically polluted leftovers) are located below Lake Petrov. The lake grew by more than 92,000 square metres annually in recent years due to a melting glacier. The lake's natural dam has become less and less stable (according to Torgoev Isakbek, author of a State Commission report on the subject). Although there is no imminent danger, the lake's tremendous growth might cause it to break out at some point. In a worst-case scenario, the downstream tailings could then be washed away, with unforeseeable impacts on the environment. The tailings dam foundation is also experiencing horizontal deformations and is moving down the slope. Inspite of measures to stabilise the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move. Kyrgyz scientists believe it is caused by the facts that it has been built on an uneven slope and that the dam never freezes. *^*

Environmental Problems at Kumtor Gold Mine

According to Bankwatch.org: “The Kumtor mine is located in a remote area of the Tian-Shan mountain range next to the Sarychat-Ertash reserve and not far from the Issyk-Kul lake, an important regional tourist attraction. The mine is being developed in fragile conditions of permafrost and in the vicinity of glaciers that feed fresh waters into the transboundary Naryn River. It is an area of surreal beauty. [Source: Bankwatch.org *^*]

“The mine pit slices through two glaciers (Lysyi and Davidov). This vicinity and the practice of storing waste rock directly on the glaciers damages these enormous natural ice sheets. The glaciers, already suffering from the impacts of climate change, are melting much faster and have shrunk tremendously in recent years. *^*

“Likely the most serious problem at Kumtor is the slow long-term release of contaminants from current and future mining operations. During summer operations (May through October) some five million cubic metres of waste water from the tailings are treated and discharged into the Kumtor River and eventually flow into the Naryn River (later Syrdarya) towards Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. While Centerra Gold Inc. does not publicise data on the quality of the discharged water, people living near the Kumtor River observed an enormous decrease in fish stock in recent years and suspect that the river has already been polluted. *^*

The Kyrgyzstan environmental protection agency is reportedly reluctant to approve future mining plan and permits because of how Centerra plans to deal with the fact that the the Davydov Glacier glacier is melting and sliding into the open pit. According to 24.kg, “these activities contradict the Water Code of Kyrgyzstan, which prohibits any activity that could affect the natural state of glaciers or quality of water contained therein.” In response to this Centerra claims the “project agreements support the view that the Water Code does not apply to the Kumtor operations”. The Kyrgyz parliament is considering amendments to the Water Code that would clear the way for Centerra’s permits. [Source: Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, June 8, 2015 *^*]

In 2014, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) came under some scrutiny for providing loans to Centerra despite the mining company’s failure to release information pertaining to the impact of the mine on the nearby glaciers. A report claimed that Centerra had been operating the mine without a permit for waste disposal until 2012 — and dumping waste onto the glacier. *^*

Accidents at Kumtor Gold Mine

Throughout the mine’s operation, several accidents occurred, leaving several people dead and hundreds in need of treatment. Among these were: 1) a cyanide and sodium cyanide spill into the Barskoon River in May 1998; 2) a spill of 70 liters nitric acid in July 1998; 3) an ammonium nitrate spill in January 2000; and 4) collapses of a 200 metre high pit walls at the mine in 2002 and 2006. [Source: Bankwatch.org *^*]

In May 1998, a truck traveling to gold mine of Kumtour ran off a bridge near the town of Barskaun and overturned, dumping 1,744 kilograms of sodium cyanide into a river which flowed into Lake Issyk Kul. The mine waited five hours to inform villagers. No one was killed and no long term damage was caused, but toxins did temporarily affect life in the river. Still, thousands were evacuated, people refused to swim or draw water from the lake. The mine was fined $8 million.

According to Bankwatch.org: “A blockade by villagers demanded proper compensation for the 1998 accident at the Kumtor mine While the company plays down the cyanide spill in 1998, more than 1000 people have turned to the Barskoon local public association “Karek” in need of assistance to protect their rights and to claim compensations for the damages caused by the spill. A law suit is ongoing since 2005. Barskoon villagers with documented proofs of poisoning demand compensation for moral and health impacts from the mining company. “The company did not notify residents of Barskaun, who use the water for drinking and irrigation, until 5 hours after the accident. As a result, over 2,500 people were poisoned, 850 people were hospitalized and at least four of those patients died.” *^*

Environmental Policy and the Kyrgyzstan Government

The Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations is the national enforcement agency for environmental policy, which is summarized in the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP). However, that plan is heavily subsidized and directed by international donors, and the president’s strong role in environmental policy has politicized some issues. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

The NEAP, adopted in 1994, is the basic blueprint for environmental protection. The plan focuses on solving a small number of critical problems, collecting reliable information to aid in that process, and integrating environmental measures with economic and social development strategy. The initial planning period is to end in 1997. The main targets of that phase are inefficient water resource management, land degradation, overexploitation of forest reserves, loss of biodiversity, and pollution from inefficient mining and refining practices.[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Because of severe budget constraints, most of the funds for NEAP operations come from international sources, including official institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and numerous international nongovernmental organizations. Implementation is guided by a committee of state ministers and by a NEAP Expert Working Group, both established in 1994 by executive order. A NEAP office in Bishkek was set up with funds from Switzerland. *

The main environmental protection agency of the Kyrgyzstani government is the State Committee on Environmental Protection, still known by its Soviet-era acronym, Goskompriroda. Established by the old regime in 1988, the agency's post-Soviet responsibilities have been described in a series of decrees beginning in 1991. In 1994 the state committee had a central office in Bishkek, one branch in each of the seven provinces, and a total staff of about 150 persons. Because of poorly defined lines of responsibility, administrative conflicts often occur between local and national authorities of Goskompriroda and between Goskompriroda and a second national agency, the Hydrometeorological Administration (Gidromet), which is the main monitoring agency for air, water, and soil quality. In general, the vertical hierarchy structure, a relic of Soviet times, has led to poor coordination and duplication of effort among environmental protection agencies. *

In response to the internationally recognized environmental crisis of the rapid desiccation of the Aral Sea, the five states sharing the Aral Sea Basin (Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) joined together to develop a strategy to end the crisis. The World Bank and agencies of the United Nations (UN) have developed an Aral Sea Program, the first stage of which was funded by the five countries and external donors. That stage has seven areas of focus, one of which--land and water management in the upper watersheds--is of primary concern to Kyrgyzstan. Among the conditions detrimental to the Aral Sea's environment are erosion from deforestation and overgrazing, contamination from poorly managed irrigation systems, and uncontrolled waste from mining and municipal effluents. Kyrgyzstan's National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) has addressed these problems as part of its first-phase priorities in cooperation with the Aral Sea Program. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Little Tolerance For Environmental Activists in Kyrgyzstan

Antoine Blua wrote in Radio Free Europe, “In 1998, a truck belonging to Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine overturned on a mountain road, spilling more than a ton of cyanide into a river that supplies water to many of the villages on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009 <^>]

“The environmental NGO Karek has been campaigning for compensation for local residents and for the use of environment-friendly methods at Kumtor. Its head, Erkingul Imankojoeva, tells Radio Free Europe's Kyrgyz Service about the intimidations that members of the group, mainly women, have faced since 2002. <^>

“Imankojoeva says the authorities "detained all the women activists, about 20 of them," and took blood from them using a single syringe. She says they were beaten, leaving some in serious condition, and that half of them left the area due to official harassment. "They even went to my family and my parents. They were from KGB, today's National Security Service. They shot our house with their video camera," Imankojoeva says. "They also told our neighbors that if they had a daughter like me, they would shoot her. And they forced the neighbors to tell this to us." <^>

Animals in Kyrgyzstan

According to a survey in 1985, 15 percent of all mammal species and 10 percent of bird species in Kyrgyzstan are endangered. Poaching is problem. In some cases foreigners come in and pay big bucks to hunt wolves, snow leopard and Marco Polo sheep.

Kyrgyzstan is home to lynx, wolves, wild boars and brown bears. Snow leopards and ibex can be found in some remote places. Eagles and lammergeires feed on marmots, pikas and mice. Svertsov ram is named after a famous Russian zoologist. In the higher elevations are Marco polo sheep.

The argali of Mongolia and Marco Polo sheep of the Pamirs are the largest members of the sheep family. The argali has long massive horns. The Marco Polo sheep is named after the famous Silk Road traveler who first described it. It has wide spreading horns.

Snow Leopards in Kyrgyzstan

Due to recent heavy poaching, there are significantly less snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan than there were a few years ago. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, June 2008]

Kyrgyzstan was once believed to have the world's second largest population of snow leopards after China (with most of them in Tibet). Russian scientists doing a survey of snow leopards in 1999 in the Sarychat Ertash Park, a 4,000-meter-high reserve in the Tien Shan mountains, didn’t see any leopards but they see lots of traps set up for the animals.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, law enforcement and conservation funds dried up and poaching increased. By one count the snow leopard population Kyrgyzstan declined by 80 percent in the 1990s. Particularly disturbing was the fact that many of the poachers were park rangers who took to poaching because their $15-a-month salaries were not enough to feed their families. [Source: Time magazine, August 23, 2004]

In response to this situation the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT) set up a program to help women villagers near the park, many of them married to rangers, make felt bags and other handicrafts that could be exported and earn them some income so their husbands didn’t have to turn to poaching. If no leopards were killed the families received a bonus. In 2003, families that participated in the program made around $100 for the handicrafts and $22 bonus.

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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