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The environment of Kazakstan has been badly damaged by human activity.
Most of the water in Kazakstan is polluted by industrial effluents,
pesticide and fertilizer residue, and, in some places, radioactivity. 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. 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.
By contrast, 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 Kazakstan's Caspian oil
fields could be submerged by 2020.
Wind erosion has also 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
Kazakstan'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.
Industrial pollution is a bigger concern in Kazakstan's manufacturing
cities, where aging factories pump huge quantities of unfiltered
pollutants into the air and groundwater. The capital, Almaty, is
particularly threatened, in part because of the postindependence boom in
private automobile ownership.
The gravest environmental threat to Kazakstan comes from radiation,
especially in the Semey (Semipalatinsk) region of the northeast, where the
Soviet Union tested almost 500 nuclear weapons, 116 of them above ground.
Often, such tests were conducted without evacuating or even alerting the
local population. Although nuclear testing was halted in 1990, radiation
poisoning, birth defects, severe anemia, and leukemia are very common in
the area (see Health Conditions, this ch.).
With some conspicuous exceptions, lip service has been the primary
official response to Kazakstan's ecological problems. In February 1989,
opposition to Soviet nuclear testing and its ill effects in Kazakstan led
to the creation of one of the republic's largest and most influential
grass-roots movements, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, which was founded by Kazak
poet and public figure Olzhas Suleymenov. In the first week of the
movement's existence, Nevada-Semipalatinsk gathered more than 2 million
signatures from Kazakstanis of all ethnic groups on a petition to
Gorbachev demanding the end of nuclear testing in Kazakstan. After a year
of demonstrations and protests, the test ban took effect in 1990. It
remained in force in 1996, although in 1995 at least one unexploded device
reportedly was still in position near Semey.
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.
The 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 (see Glossary), the
International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary), and the United States
Environmental Protection Agency agreed to give Kazakstan US$62 million to
help the country overcome ecological problems.
Data as of March 1996