November 19, 2010
Transboundary environmental problems discussed
One of the most important tasks for the whole mankind today is to preserve the environment and ensure environmental sustainability, including through effective solution of transborder issues, without which sustainable development in the 21st century is impossible. This was the topic of the international conference “Transboundary environmental problems in Central Asia: application of international legal mechanisms to solve them” held in Tashkent on 16-17 November.

The forum was attended by experts, scientists and environmentalists from 30 countries, including Austria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, India, Spain, Italy, Canada, China, South Korea, Netherlands, Russia, USA, Turkey, Ukraine, France, Switzerland and Japan, as well as representatives of more than 60 international organizations and financial institutions – the UN, OSCE, World Health Organization, World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, World Conservation Union and others.

The Chairman of the Board of the Central Council of the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis Boriy Alikhanov opened the conference.

The First Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Rustam Azimov read the message from the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov to the participants of the international conference.

Protection and preservation of the environment are of great importance for further progress, including food security, and in general for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially in today’s conditions of climate change, said secretary-general of the International Commission for Irrigation and Drainage M.Gopalakrishnan. He stressed that the use of water resources should not be considered only in terms of hydropower energy. In complex regions like Central Asia, use of small power stations is preferred, he said. “ The Aral Sea disaster is one of the reasons to raise the question of the expediency of building giant hydroelectric plants,” Gopalakrishnan noted.

He praised the creation of the Environmental Movement of Uzbekistan, as well as amendments to the electoral laws that made it possible for the environmentalists to occupy seats in the parliament. According to him, to address environmental issues, especially cross-border ones, an open dialogue is required, and one good example of this approach is the current international conference in Uzbekistan. Speaking to forum participants, head of the Ecological Movement Boriy Alikhanov drew the attention to the fact that many cross-border environmental problems in Central Asian region were a direct result of the reckless economic activity in the past.

This is primarily the consequences of the Aral Sea crisis, which are increasingly acquiring global nature, and the desire of some states of the Aral Sea basin to implement projects on construction of huge hydro structures disregarding the interests of other countries. Another issue he raised was the activity of the Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO), which has for over 35 years caused huge damage to the nature, health and socioeconomic development of the southern regions of Uzbekistan.

The participants emphasized that after attaining independence Uzbekistan has paid a lot of attention to environmental protection and public health, improving the ecological situation in the country and throughout the region. The country has a legal framework created in line with international standards, aimed at rational use of natural resources and protecting people’s health. Several state programs and national action plans are also being implemented in this area. Uzbekistan has ratified major UN conventions and other international documents in the field of environmental protection and sustainable development, and has been fulfilling all of its commitments. “This work, held with active involvement of non-governmental organizations, is an integral part of a complex socioeconomic policy of the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, carried out in the interests of security and human rights, including the right to dignified life in supportive environment,” said professor at New York State University (USA) Pervez Morvidge. One proof of the effectiveness of this policy is the GDP growth of 8.1 percent last year, despite the global economic crisis. Uzbekistan today sets an example for many nations in solving economic and environmental problems. The scholar noted that all countries should take into account the ecological interests of each other. At the same time, he drew attention to the inadmissibility of the situation when one country builds industrial plants, and the population of the neighboring states suffers from it.

Editor of the Austrian magazine “Business, Culture, Sport” Manfred Tichy said that all countries should abide by relevant UN convention on transboundary watercourses. He said that their trip to the Aral Sea showed that the unreasonable use of water resources has in a short period of time led to environmental disaster and human suffering. Rogun hydropower station is a vivid example when one country tries to implement the project that would harm another country. The 30 to 40-year-old project, born during the Soviet megalomania, which does not meet the requirements of environmental and technological safety, should not be implemented,” he said. The editor stressed that Austria was also a mountainous country, and the evaluation of the project has shown that in such regions it was extremely dangerous to build gigantic dams, especially since this area is seismically dangerous. He noted that mountainous countries of Europe had decided to recommend to other similar regions to construct small hydropower stations, which are much less expensive, cost-effective and most importantly safe.

Foreign experts have emphasized in their speeches that it was President of Uzbekistan who first drew the world attention to the urgency and importance of environmental issues, many of whom have already moved beyond the regional level. Among them, in particular, is the complex set of environmental, socioeconomic and demographic problems of planetary impact in the Aral Sea region. President Karimov, in his speeches at international high-level meetings, called on the international community to come together and adopt comprehensive measures, not only for improving the environmental situation, but also to create the enabling environment and living conditions of future generations. On the initiative of the head of Uzbekistan, Nukus and Tashkent declarations were signed, and the International Aral Sea Rescue Fund was created. At the meeting of the fund heads of states in April 2009, President of Uzbekistan put forward the concept of the third phase of the Program of Action to Assist the Aral Sea Region for 2011-2015.

The participants were able to see for themselves how serious the problems discussed at the conference were. One day before the event, a group of conference participants visited the Republic of Karakalpakstan, namely Nukus and Muinak district, and saw the disastrous consequences of the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Another group visited Sariasiya district of Surkhandarya region, whose population and economy has been affected by the negative impact of harmful emissions from the TALCO plant. The conference participants were struck by the consequences of human destruction of local ecosystems, causing a disastrous effect on human health, flora and fauna, leading to land degradation and creating a threat of humanitarian catastrophe. In addition, before the conference an exhibition of photographs from the zones of ecological disasters – the Aral Sea and Surkhandarya was organized.

The volume of the Aral Sea, once one of the largest inland bodies of water of the planet, has shrank 13 times, and the area more than 7 times, the water level has dropped by 26 meters, the salinity in some parts has reached 280 grams per liter. On the dried Aral seabed, a new desert with the area of more than 5 million hectares has formed. Many small lakes have also dried up. Annually, up to 100 million tons of saline dust rises into the atmosphere from here. More than half of the gene pool of flora and fauna in the Aral Sea region has been lost, and many species are listed in the Red Book as endangered. These negative processes are accompanied by loss of land resources, worsening living conditions, and difficult socioeconomic development of the Aral Sea area.

The Regional Advisor on Environment of the European Economic Commission Bo Libert said that all of this was a consequence of past approaches to economic development through the uncontrolled consumption of natural resources. He noted that any activity in the sphere of nature use must be based on the principles of preventing harm to the population, ecology and environmental management.

According to the expert, Uzbekistan today demonstrates the effectiveness of the complex solution of development issues, and actively participates in the implementation of UN conventions on environmental issues. Many international organizations, including the World Bank, are collaborating on this area with Uzbekistan, carrying out large joint projects, including those on water resources management.

At the conference, it was noted that a very complex ecological situation was being observed in the border areas of Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan with Tajikistan, from where the winds, ground and surface waters distribute hundreds of tons of pollutants emitted by TALCO. The most dangerous to human health, flora and fauna are components of its emissions like hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. The damage to the environment and health of the population of the southern regions of Uzbekistan has been estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars. Back in 1994, an Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in improving the environmental situation in the area of the negative effects of the Tajik Aluminum Plant was signed. However, many of the planned activities were not implemented, the technologies applied at the plant have outdated, and a number of cleaning plants are not operating. Despite this, the plant plans to expand production, which means increase in toxic emissions – according to preliminary estimates from 21,700 to 32,000 tons per year.

In the view of the international experts, projects of construction of new giant hydro stations upstream of transboundary rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, primarily Rogun HPS, pose the risk of destruction of the already fragile ecological balance in Central Asia.

They emphasized that the desire of some countries to exploit cross-border water resources in violation of international norms, without consideration of interests of other states in the region, was causing great anxiety. As international experience and research results show, possible consequences of such construction are extremely dangerous. Such actions may not only deepen the ecological crisis in the Aral Sea area, but also lead to technological and humanitarian disasters, making vast areas uninhabitable for millions of people. In this regard, executive director of the US Banks Information Center Chad Dobson drew the attention of the conference participants to the fact that large-scale hydropower projects should be implemented for the benefit of the entire population of the region, for their prosperity, and not for one country or individual production, which is also environmentally harmful. International financial institutions sometimes substitute the concepts. Power generation facilities should primarily be used not to build new environmentally unsafe aluminum industries, but to address the immediate needs of the population, including stable supply of electricity, he said. According to Chad Dobson, the World Bank and other financial institutions should cooperate with civil society, listen to their opinion, and make decisions only after the majority of the population supports such projects. All interested parties should be able to participate in making decisions about the construction of these hydro stations. The expert expressed his belief in the need for extensive public consultations on these issues to ensure the transparency of all procedures.

Hydropower projects planned to be implemented now have long been outdated, they do not take into account the high seismicity of the zone of the construction, which is up to 9 on the Richter scale, as well as landslide and mudflow processes occurring here. For the last 110 years, more than 20 strong earthquakes have been registered here. In world practice, there are no precedents of construction of giant hydropower stations in such areas. Rogun HPS project in Tajikistan envisages raising the dam with the height of 335 meters, which has no analogues in the world. In the case of its destruction, the height of the wave at the initial point will exceed 250 meters, and at 1,500 kilometers from Rogun, in Karakalpakstan, the wave will reach 6-7 meters in height. Areas up to 1.5 million hectares will be flooded, including over 700 settlements on the territory of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where about 5 million people live.

Even with the most favorable conditions, the work of the Rogun HPS in the planned energy regime would lead to sharp deterioration of living conditions of millions of people in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya. The salinity of water in the river will double, and its flow during the growing season will be significantly reduced. Direct losses of crop production, and related processing industries and fish resources are estimated at almost USD 20.6 billion over five years. In this regard, the conference participants emphasized that there were alternative options for obtaining the same amount of electricity like Rogun would provide by building small hydropower stations, which is much cheaper and does not create the above mentioned threats. President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, in his speech on 20 September at the UN Summit on Millennium Development Goals, highlighted much greater rationality of such approach to the development of hydropower sector. The head of the state has repeatedly drawn the attention to the fact that any construction projects on transborder rivers should be conducted only on the basis of international expertise, which should ensure that the volume and flow regimes of the rivers is not violated, and the ecological situation in the region does not deteriorate.

The conference concluded that all regional states should strictly abide by international norms acting in this sphere. In accordance with the UN Conventions on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, and on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the Helsinki Rules of Using the Waters of International Rivers, the Geneva Convention on the Impact of Hydropower Production to Other States and other international documents, coordination of construction and conditions of operation of hydropower facilities with all countries located in transboundary river basins should be mandatory.

During the conference, thematic sessions were held, which discussed the problem of transboundary pollution in Central Asia, improvement of cross-border cooperation through integrated water resources management, children’s health, conservation of biodiversity in ecologically disadvantaged regions, climate change in the Aral Sea region, influence of large industrial enterprises on the environment and other pressing environmental issues.

On the results of the conference, the Tashkent Environmental Declaration was adopted. It notes that regional states should strive for cross-border cooperation, in accordance with the key international documents defining basic principles of management of transboundary rivers, to prevent harm to other states of these rivers’ basin. It recommends to precede the construction of any large hydropower station in the upper reaches of transboundary rivers in Central Asia with an independent international technical and environmental audit, conducted in a transparent manner for the benefit of the population of all states in the region.

The declaration also notes that international financial institutions and organizations should contribute to environmental sustainability in the region, including through collaboration and open dialogue with civil society in all countries in the zone of impact of proposed projects. The document stresses that in accordance with recommendations of international environmental organizations, it would be more rational to commence construction of safer and more fuel-efficient small power plants, as well as to expand the use of environmentally friendly renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power. The conference participants also recommended to take necessary measures to ensure that the level of emissions from the aluminum enterprise is within international norms.

The Declaration identified the major environmental problems in Central Asia. These are avoiding artificial reduction of the volume and flow regime of transboundary rivers, implementation of measures to curb the spread of desertification and soil salinization in the zone of ecological disaster and to create conditions for increasing employment and income growth in this area through the development of small businesses, primarily industrial and low water consuming agricultural productions, as well as services sector.

The participants called on the governments and international organizations to join efforts in addressing transboundary environmental problems and reducing environmental threats. They stated that international environmental organizations should support the Environmental Movement of Uzbekistan in its efforts to protect the environment.

All of this should ensure a more balanced way to solve the problem of transboundary natural resources, and harmonize the socioeconomic and environmental development across the region. Nobody has the right to cover their needs at the expense of others and nature, which should be preserved for future generations, the conference said.

(UzA News Agency)


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