#13 - JRL 7003
January 3, 2003
Environmental disaster in the making
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Security issues, not environmental concerns, are drawing the focus - yet again - in the wake of the Dec 27 suicide bomb blasts at Chechnya's pro-Kremlin government headquarters in Grozny.
While Russia's ministry of natural resources concedes that Chechnya is an "area of environmental disaster" and the government has approved a blueprint of a clean-up program, a sum of only 15 million roubles (US$500,000) has been allocated.
The program aims at cleaning soil and water polluted by oil spills as well as building anti-flood dikes in Chechnya, deputy minister for natural resources, Maksim Yakovenko, announced.
But considering the gigantic scale of the problem, experts consider the amount earmarked for the purpose as "far from adequate". One-third of Chechnya's agricultural land is soaked with oil waste, according to official government estimates. Many Chechen rivers, including the main waterways Terek, Sunzha and Argun, are polluted with concentrations of oil products.
The damage extends to neighboring Dagestan. According to Yakovenko, satellite photos indicated grave oil pollution of the Caspian Sea, which originated from Chechnya. Though the situation has worsened in the past 10 years, oil pollution around Grozny was already evident in Soviet times. In 1992, official government figures revealed that 2 million tons of oil had leaked into the ground during the Soviet era, largely because of the sloppiness of Soviet industrial methods.
Following years of war and continued armed hostilities, the Chechen population became largely dependent on illegal oil extraction to survive. Many Chechens risk their lives to extract oil which they then refine into primitive low-quality gasoline, while all by-products are dumped into nearby rivers.
As a result, one-third of the territory of the breakaway republic became a "zone of ecological disaster", says the environmental safety service of the Russian Armed Forces. Another 40 percent is classified as a zone of extreme environmental distress.
Russian officials say that the recent oil spills in Chechnya are mainly a consequence of what they call the "Chechen bandit economy". After 1991, when the Chechens declared independence, local warlords started splitting up the oil business in the region among themselves to make quick profits on illegal extraction.
Subsequently, Russian troops systematically blew up oil wells, reservoirs and pumps so as to cut the rebels off from their fuel and financial sources. The oil and gas sector traditionally dominated Chechnya's economy. But oil production fell steadily from 21.5 million tons in 1971 to less than 2 million tons in 1993, or less than 1 percent of Russia's total production. In addition, much of the Chechen oil sector's infrastructure was badly damaged in the subsequent war.
Many oil fields are still poorly guarded, hence posing constant environmental threat. In addition, there are some 150 free-flowing wells in Chechnya with a combined output 30,000 tons per month. According to various estimates, at least tens of thousand or probably more than one million tons of crude oil and oil products has leaked from the refineries since the war started.
It is not just the menace of oil spills, though. Chechnya also faces a problem of radioactive material that had disappeared from waste disposal sites in Chechnya. During the war, storage facilities holding radioactive waste were damaged. Used medical and research equipment containing radioactive cesium were dumped there.
At the start of the hostilities in November 1994, some 900 cubic meters of nuclear material had been stored at the Radon factory and nuclear waste disposal site near the village of Tolstoy-yurt, north of Grozny. When a truce was agreed in May 1996, half of the material was missing.
The Rodon site was set up in 1965 and used to contain substances such as plutonium, beryllium, radium-226, caesium-137, thorium, thulium-170, iridium-192, americium-241 and Iodine-131. During the war, as many as 67 different sources of radiation were bombed around Grozny. A commission appointed by the Russian government found at least 21 sites in Chechnya where radioactive material was unguarded.
In many cities sewage system stopped working long ago. Massive oil spills, ruined fields and contaminated water have made parts of the republic barely habitable. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Chechen refugees, officially considered internally displaced people, or IDPs, have been reluctant to return.
However, Russian officials insist that Chechen IDPs are returning and steadily repopulating the region: This, they say, is evidence that the war is over. The government minister on Chechen affairs, Stanislav Ilyasov, announced December 6 that some 300,000 people had returned to Chechnya within the past 30 months. According to Ilyasov, only 69,000 Chechen refugees live in neighboring Ingushetia. In early December, Russian authorities announced that they planned to close down the remaining camps in Ingushetia in the coming weeks.
The United Nations and human rights organizations have accused Russian authorities of forcing Chechens to leave refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia. Human rights groups have claimed that Russian officials had threatened to switch off electricity and gas supplies unless the refugees went home.
This view also appears to be shared by UN Resident Coordinator in Moscow, Frederick Lyons, who is also the UN humanitarian coordinator in Russia. He insists that people have been coerced into returning. In response, on December 10, President Vladimir Putin pledged that Chechen refugees would not be forced to return to Chechnya against their will. (Inter Press Service)