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Kazakhstan Suffers Ecological Damage In Aftermath Of Soviet Rule

Prague, July 12 (RFE/RL) -- Pollution from Soviet-era nuclear testing and cotton farming has created enormous health problems in Kazakhstan, particularly in the eastern part of the country and near the Aral Sea.

Experts say thousands of hectares around the former nuclear weapons testing ground of Semipalatinsk, in the northeast of the country, will remain dangerously irradiated for centuries.

A recent survey by the Financial Times of London says that for millions of people living near that test range, the lingering effects of Soviet nuclear tests are worse than for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The newspaper explains that victims of the atom bomb attacks on the Japanese cities at the end of World War Two were exposed to a single dose of gamma radiation. But the victims of decades of Soviet testing suffered from both repeated doses of gamma radiation and continual internal radiation from contaminated food, water and air.

Some 124 atmospheric explosions were carried out at Semipalatinsk between 1949 and 1963. Another 343 underground tests were conducted through 1989. The underground explosions polluted ground water supplies, and sometimes resulted in accidental escapes of nuclear fall-out into the atmosphere.

Those effected the most include people living in parts of the Semipalatinsk, Karaganda and Pavlodar regions.

The Financial Times says that in areas surrounding the test site, every third child is born dead or with serious mental and physical defects. It says cancer deaths in Semipalatinsk oblast increased seven-fold between 1975 and 1985.

Meanwhile, water and air in the Kazakhstan's industrial and mining areas also have been heavily polluted by ferrous and non-ferrous mining and smelting operations.

Recent research by doctor Alma Aknoba, of the Geographic Institute of Kazakhstan, revealed high concentrations of toxic lead and cadmium in the vital organs of those living in the country's eastern regions.

Dr Aknoba found that lead levels were two-to-32 times higher for eastern residents than in Almaty, while cadmium levels were two-to-six times higher. Pollution at these levels has led to a steep rise in cancers, still births and deformities.

Another major ecological disaster in Kazakhstan has been the destruction of the inland Aral Sea. The ancient sea has shrunk to half its former size since the end of World War II.

That's because the two rivers that once fed the sea with fresh water from the mountains, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, were dammed and diverted in Soviet times to provide irrigation for cotton farming.

Meanwhile, the remaining trickle of water going into the Aral Sea became heavily polluted with agricultural chemicals from those farming operations -- changing the sea into what the Financial Times now calls "a poisonous cesspool."

Studies show that 90 percent of children living in the Aral Sea region around Aktyubinsk suffer from pollution-related illnesses. About two-thirds are victims of respiratory, neurological and developmental disorders.

About half of those children also suffer from anemia, and people all around the dried-up areas of the sea suffer from allergic reactions.

The Financial Times notes that Kazakhstan has not been able to pay for adequate medical services since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Medicine that was once supplied cheaply or even for free is now only available to those who can afford to pay the high prices for smuggled drugs.

But the newspaper concludes that health issues will move up the list of government priorities as the nation's wealth increases -- particularly, after the completion of a new Caspian pipeline network to transport gas and oil to the Russia port of Novorossiisk from the Karachaganak gas and Tengiz oil fields.