Kyrgyz officials say they have signed a contract with foreign investors to start building an "eco-city" near the picturesque shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in the country's north, despite concerns the multibillion-dollar project could harm the environment.
The head of the Asman Eco-City of the Future project, Ruslan Akmataliev, said three French companies -- Finentrep Aspir, MEDEF, and Mercuroo -- had pledged to invest about $5 billion for the first phase of the ambitious $20 billion project. He said the contract was signed by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and the representatives of the firms on April 12, but didn't provide many details.
The project was first presented by Japarov's government in July as a sustainable city that will become an economic and tourist center with an advanced educational system, state-of-the-art business center, banks, sports arenas, and high-tech parks. It will also include modern health-care facilities to develop medical tourism.
The city will mostly rely on alternative energy sources and will use environmentally friendly models of transport to comply with the principles of a green economy, according to the president's office.
From a bird's-eye view, the city -- called Asman (Kyrgyz for "sky") -- would look like a "komuz," an ancient musical instrument and one of Kyrgyzstan's national symbols.
Designed for about 500,000 residents, Asman will be built on 4,000 hectares of land over the next seven to 10 years. Officials have said construction would begin this spring, but no date was given.
Akmataliev and others behind the project hope that Asman will particularly appeal to Kyrgyz IT specialists, doctors, and other professionals living abroad. "If we create [work and life] opportunities here, many Kyrgyz will return to our country to work. We will take the best from all over the world -- the latest technologies for Asman," Akmataliev told reporters.
"We will have the newest hospitals for medical tourism and also the Kyrgyz people won't have to travel to Turkey, India, or Israel for treatment anymore," he said.
The project is also expected to create thousands of jobs for local residents and many others currently working as migrant laborers in Russia and elsewhere.
According to initial plans, the city was going to be located near the village of Toru-Aigyr, some 15 kilometers from the industrial town of Balykchi. But recently, the project managers were also looking at an area near the village of Chyrpykty as an alternative option.
Huge Environmental Impact
But not everyone in Kyrgyzstan shares the government's enthusiasm about the project. Experts and environmental activists fear the construction of a new city in the area will harm the environment and disrupt the ecosystem.
In January, environmental activists started a protest movement, No to the Construction of Asman, urging the government to abandon the project.
The Issyk-Kul area is home to some 335 species of animal, with 39 of them included in Kyrgyzstan's red book of endangered species, according to UNESCO. It also has very diverse flora. In 2001, Issyk-Kul was recognized as part of the UN agency's worldwide network of Biosphere Reserves because of its environmental significance.
Even before the "eco-city" project was envisioned, experts were raising alarms about the deterioration of the ecological situation at Issyk-Kul, due to climate change, unregulated construction, and other activities.
Rysbek Satylkanov, the head of the Center for Water and Hydroenergy Studies in Bishkek, says the water level at the lake has been dropping for the past decade. Climate change and human actions -- such as the diversion of inflowing rivers to irrigate farmland -- have played the main roles. "The lake's water level has dropped by 90 centimeters since 2011," he said, calling it a "dangerous sign."
The construction of a city for 500,000 people could create additional problems, such as land pollution from the large population and air pollution from the excessive car exhaust. There would also be sewage and waste-management issues, experts warn. "There is simply no basis to build a large city here, it will cause irreparable damage to the area," said Aigul Nasriddinova, a lecturer at the Kyrgyz University of Construction, Transport, and Architecture.
With a length of 182 kilometers and width of some 60 kilometers, Issyk-Kul is the second-largest mountain lake in the world.
Some have argued that the eco-city will squeeze out local residents -- most of whom would be unable to afford apartments in the new city -- from the property market and turn the area into a playground for the wealthy.
The authorities have sought to appease such critics, saying they would provide alternative land in nearby villages for anyone who loses land because of the project.
Villagers whose houses will be demolished to make way for the new development would be given apartments in the city, government officials have promised.