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Ecological crisis in southern Uzbekistan caused by cross-border pollutions from the Tajik Aluminium Company

An enlarged meeting of the British-Uzbek Society (BUS) was held 
on 16 July 2013 in London, focusing on the environmental crisis in Uzbekistan caused by industrial pollution from the Tajik Aluminium Company TALCO. The event was organised jointly with the Uzbekistan Embassy in London.
The meeting was opened by Dr Hartley Booth OBE, the BUS Chairman, who was one of the initiators of this event. He stressed the importance of raising the awareness of the British and international communities about the deteriorating ecological situation in the Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan as a result of cross-border emissions from TALCO. He called for urgent measures to assist the authorities and the inhabitants of the affected areas in overcoming the consequences for health and the environment and preventing their irreversibility.
HE Mr Otabek Akbarov, Ambassador of Uzbekistan, made an illustrated presentation on the ecological crisis in southern Uzbekistan caused by the pollutions from TALCO. He said that the plant was built in 1975 and is equipped with an outdated and ecologically inefficient system of purification. Although TALCO only operates at 50% of its designed capacity only (517.000 tons per year), the plant annually emits 23 tons of pollutants, including more than 200 tons of hydrogen fluoride.
Most of TALCO’s industrial emissions are carried with airflow towards the Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan, where more than 1.1m people live. This causes irreparable harm to human health and the environment. Of particular concern is the increase in severe pathological disease of the local population, including women's reproductive health.
In this context, attention was drawn to the recent special resolution of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) of Uzbekistan on this issue, which was sent to the Parliament of Tajikistan, as well as the Appeal of the inhabitants of Surkhandarya region to the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Environment Programme and the World Health Organization.
Reference: On 8 May 2013, the Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan Dilorom Tashmuhamedova sent a letter to the Chairman of the Majlisi Namoyongoni of the Majlisi Oli (Parliament) of Tajikistan Shukurjon Zuhurov regarding the continued deterioration of the environmental situation in the northern districts of the Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan bordering Tajikistan and the Resolution of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan "On prevention of deterioration  of ecological situation, pollution, threats to human health in the region by the emissions of TALCO” dated 25 April 2013, as well as the Information "On Transboundary impact of pollutant emissions of the TALCO on the population and the environment of the northern districts of the Surkhandarya region” for consideration and appropriate action.
The Appeal of residents of the Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan to the United Nations General Assembly, UNEP, WHO, signed by more than 757.000 people, urged the international community to pay attention to the catastrophic situation in the region, to take measures to stop the operation of the plant and conduct a thorough environmental production review with the involvement of international experts, to oblige TALCO fully repair the damage done to public health and the environment over several decades (the appeal was sent in 2010).
The current situation is aggravated by the fact that when many countries of the world are resolutely refusing to use "dirty" technologies, the Government of Tajikistan does not take practical measures to modernize the production and purification facilities. The area affected by TALCO’s environmental pollutions covers new territories of Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan and the south of Tajikistan. The pollution has had severe and unpredictable consequences on people’s health and it has caused a sharp deterioration in the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of people living in the area.
Ambassador also informed participants of the meeting about the assessment made by Professor Trevor Tanton, Head of the Department for Environmental Technology, School of Civil Engineering and Environment, the University of Southampton. He said: - “The symptoms we observed during our visit to the Surkhandarya province (November 2010) were clearly consistent with fluoride poisoning in people, cows and plants. The obvious source of the fluoride being the TALCO Factory. As the factory appears to be unwilling to jointly investigate the problem it would imply that they know they have a problem, but they do not want to pay for effective scrubbers. The answer therefore appears to be political rather than technical”. Moreover, the professor called for attention from the world community to this problem and putting external political pressure, including from the international organizations, on the Tajikistan government. He underlined the importance of involvement of the World Health Organization and the other key UN structures, as well as the EU. According to the academician, an independent study and technical report would be necessary into the cause of fluoride poisoning in the above mentioned province of Uzbekistan.
Professor Siddharth Saxena, Chairman of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, sharing the global concern, said: - "Our studies of biodiversity in the region show that environmental challenges are astounding. Detrimental effects of production in old industrial complexes like TALCO do not discriminate against the boundaries, be these be geographical or ethnic. Effects on both the life and livelihood of the people in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are quite comprehensive and a speedy solution to the problem requires a constructive approach of all concerned nation states in Central Asia. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are natural partners, historically and also as we look to the future, and thus the international community needs to actively help the region's countries in resolving this situation. However, despite the importance of aluminium metallurgy, incentives should be given for developing other natural resources including metallurgy of rare-earth and transition metal which are part of natural wealth of Tajikistan and neighbouring countries. Such production strategy will have less impact on the environment and will contribute to the development of alternative and renewable energy. It should be noted that there is no alternative environment, soil or food”. He also drew attention to the importance of value and supply-chain aspects of bauxite and finished aluminium products to consider alternative and more efficient solutions for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and turning around the negative ecological consequences into a clean technology cooperation success story between the two countries and the region.    
Michelle Bradfield, Partner at Dentons Law Firm noted that such multifaceted cross-border environmental problems could be solved on the platform of bilateral, regional and international instruments. She expressed Dentons’ readiness to render legal assistance to the Government of Uzbekistan on this matter.
All of the participants of the meeting shared the concerns of the Uzbek side on the need for urgent and concrete measures to stop pollution emissions from TALCO so as to prevent further negative consequences for human health and the environment.
Michael Thomas, the Executive Director of Pathfinder Trade & Invest, noted that Tajikistan would benefit from replacement of TALCO’s outdated equipment in accordance with international technical standards and ecological norms. Production would be increased, pollution eliminated.  He said that it would lay the foundation for increasing the profitable production of aluminium and attracting investments into development of the plant’s clean technologies. A good example of which are the GCC Countries and it is quite possible that they might be interested in investing.
Bernadette Mill, Councillor of the London Borough of Waltham Forrest, suggested that the institution of Mahalla (local self-governing body) could play an important role in informing the world community on social impacts of the emissions from TALCO. As she said, - "In the course of my two visits to Uzbekistan, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with the activities of Mahalla in different provinces. This unique civil society institution is doing much to promote social stability and ethnic harmony. Mahalla has a great potential in studying and solving ecological and socio-economic issues."
During the Q&A session, the speakers gave further clarifications on the above problems and ways of addressing them.

Ambassador Akbarov presents the problem

               Chairman of the British-Uzbek                                                                               Society Dr. Hartley Booth OBE




                       Prosessor Siddharth Saxena


                                       Michelle Bradfield


During the discussion

Participants of the meeting


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