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Chechnya: War Worsens Environmental Woes

In addition to Chechnya's other miseries, the breakaway Russian republic suffers from massive water and soil pollution, mainly from oil leakage. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Russian officials blame the damage on Chechen oil-drilling practices more than on the Russian bombardment.

Moscow, 7 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Environmentalists and Russian officials agree: Chechnya is an environmental wasteland. Massive oil spills, ruined fields, and contaminated water have made parts of the republic barely habitable. But while some observers say the Russian bombardment of factories oil sites caused many of these ills, Russian officials say the damage is a result of poor Chechen oversight of oil drilling.

In recent months, more than 20,000 tons of oil have leaked into Chechnya's main waterways, the Terek and Sunzha rivers. Some sections are covered with a greasy layer that suffocates the fish. One-third of the agricultural land is soaked with oil waste. The damage extends to neighboring Daghestan, and some of the polluted waterways could contaminate the Caspian Sea.

Russian environmental official Amirkhan Amirkhanov (deputy head of Russia's State Committee for Environmental Protection) told our correspondent that oil pollution around Grozny was already evident in Soviet times. In 1992, official 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.

The Russian official says the recent oil spills in Chechnya are mainly a consequence of what he calls the "Chechen bandit economy." After 1991, local warlords started splitting up the oil business in the region among themselves to make quick profits on illegal extraction. Amirkhanov says they ignored the need for repairs.

Russia's most prominent environmentalist, Aleksei Yablokov (a former aide to Boris Yeltsin), agrees with this analysis. He says leaky, handmade wells were the main source of revenue for many families. "I know a 15-year-old study that was devoted to oil product pollution around Grozny. Already then, people living there would dig in their gardens and fill buckets with [a kind of] gasoline or kerosene that you could just pour in your car and drive off. So the colossal oil pollution around Grozny always existed. Now of course it has increased and flowed into the rivers. That's the result of the thousands of small [oil] pumps. In fact, they were just barrels in which crude oil was heated and distilled."

But the pollution does not come from Chechen actions alone -- the Russian army also contributed. Advancing through Chechnya's northern plains last fall, troops systematically blew up oil wells, reservoirs and pumps. Russian official Amirkhanov says that was necessary to cut the rebels off from their fuel and financial sources:

"The mini-pumps set up in the Chechen plains were blown up by the Russian troops for security reasons. Of course they were not using very environment-friendly methods. But in that [war] situation, they didn't have any other solution."

Amirkhanov denies that any other any other damage was done by the Russians. But environmentalist Yablokov says the Russian military has made Chechnya a wasteland:

"The scale of the military operations that we see in Chechnya [left] important parts of the territory completely burned. Forests, bushes were destroyed. Fields were burrowed by shelling. This is a serious problem."

Yablokov adds that the war in the mountains could also upset the fragile ecological balance there, destroying flora and protected species.

Chechnya's most immediate concern, however, is the lack of drinking water. An outbreak of typhoid had the government's Environment Committee issuing panicky warnings this week that urgent measures be taken to provide the population with drinking water. Canals do not work properly, and people are drinking stagnant, infected water from ponds.

Russian official Amirkhanov says the typhoid outbreak is not severe. And he blames it on Chechen civilians, whom he accuses of stealing pump parts.

"It's not an epidemic. There are 70 cases, I think. It is caused by the consumption of non-potable water. Since 1995, the population completely dismantled drinking water installations. They didn't even leave a single [electrical] cable there. So the power supply was interrupted to the electric wells. As a result, the population gets its water from whatever wells and sources it can, and the quality often does not comply with sanitary-epidemiological norms."

What Amirkhanov fails to mention is that one of the first measures Russia took last fall in an attempt to break rebel resistance was to cut off the power supply to Chechnya, rendering the electric wells useless. Chechen refugees say that Russian troops are still using a similar means of pressure, although now on a smaller scale. The international monitoring group Human Rights Watch reports that Russian soldiers shelled a water pipeline in at least one Chechen village (Tangi Chu). According to the report, the forces allegedly shelled the pipeline just beyond Russian positions in the village. Now, Human Rights Watch concludes, Russian troops can obtain fresh water from the pipeline -- but Chechen villagers cannot.