Healing From Soviet Times

healingThe skies are blue and bright these days in Sumgait (pronounced Sumgay-it). Especially on Sundays. A satellite of Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, Sumgait is beautifully situated on the Caspian Sea. But the beauty is deceptive. A sharp and pervasive smell hovers constantly in the air, irritating one’s nose and eyes. The city is home to one of the largest chemical industrial complexes in the entire former USSR. Massive concentrations of toxic chemicals have been produced here. Environmentally, it is little exaggeration to describe Sumgait as a death trap that ensnares its inhabitants.

Because of the devastating economic impact closures would have on the national economy, it is impossible to shut down the plants. Sweeping environmental reforms will take years to implement and become effective. Although development of a modern waste-recycling facility has been approved, the country cannot finance its construction. But today the skies are clear. Almost all of the thirty-three factories have ground to a standstill; only seven or eight are even minimally operative. The network of supply and distribution between the republics of the NIS (newly independent states) has been severed. Here and, indeed, throughout the former Soviet Union, factories employing thousands are frequently shut down for lack of simple parts or raw materials previously available from another republic.

It can be argued that Azerbaijan is one of the more fortunate of the former Soviet republics. It has no nuclear weapons test sites, no radioactive waste dumps, no plutonium or uranium production, and no nuclear power plants. But Azerbaijan does have its share of critical environmental problems. Aside from the toxins spewing into the atmosphere from Sumgait’s smokestacks, the most serious concerns include pollution of the Caspian Sea, the lack of clean and accessible water in Baku, the incredibly high usage of toxic pesticides in agricultural production, problems arising from the recent war with Armenia, and deforestation.

The human toll

Azerbaijanis nevertheless are proud of Sumgait, and residents recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Located about thirty miles north of Baku, the city was built from almost nothing and developed into one of the USSR’s most significant industrial complexes. In 1939 the fledgling metropolis had a population of 6,000; today, the number exceeds 350,000. Many young (mostly rural) people were attracted because jobs were plentiful, factory wages were high, and housing was more easily obtained than in older cities. The population today includes more than 60,000 refugees from the war and is a multiethnic mix of Azerbaijanis, Russians, Georgians, Jews, Udins, Lezghians, Moldovians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Kurds, and Talysh. There are even an estimated two hundred Armenians still living in the city, according to the mayor.

In many ways, Azerbaijanis considered Sumgait a paradise. They were unaware that it was an evolving ecological hell. During the years of the city’s growth, nobody paid attention to ecological concerns. The emphasis was on production and development from raw materials. Waste materials were simply dumped–into the air, into the sea, and onto garbage heaps. A buffer zone, one kilometer wide, was established between the industrial and residential sections, but our current knowledge of conditions for environmental safety indicates that the buffer should extend at least twelve kilometers.

When Sumgait’s factories were fully operational, they generated over 300,000 tons of solid wastes annually (of sixty-four different types). Around 170,000 tons were in some way recycled, but the remaining 130,000 tons were either left lying around factory yards or transported to the city dump as if they were consumer wastes. An estimated 70,000 to 120,000 tons of harmful wastes were burned in special furnaces and released into the air each year. Alone, some of these gases may not even be dangerous, but when combined with other chemicals in the atmosphere, the soil, or water, they may become highly toxic. Even some of the production processes, such as smelting and electrolysis–which produces strong magnetic fields–are environmentally hazardous.

The city dump also takes 250,000 tons of consumer waste every year. Less than one-third of the industrial sewage produced was directed to the town’s now-dilapidated purifying sites. The majority of the unprocessed sewage was simply dumped into the Caspian, eventually causing the shoreline to be turned into a biological “dead zone” extending twenty to twenty-five kilometers into the fishing regions.

Some of the chemicals produced in the city during the Soviet era are known carcinogens, especially the chloroorganic products such as hexachlorinated compounds, DDT, Lindane, and caustic sodium. Prolonged, even indirect, exposure to many of these causes damage to the heart, internal organs, bones, and teeth. Others suppress the immune system. Many chemicals clearly cause severe birth defects and embryotoxic effects.

The cemetery in Sumgait reveals the tragic story that was hidden during the Soviet period. Dead babies don’t lie. In the southern corner of the cemetery, amid overgrown grasses, one finds hundreds upon hundreds of children’s graves. Most are unmarked and unnamed, little heaps of stones piled up to prevent the wind from blowing away the dirt beneath. The few gravestones that do exist almost always indicate deformity and retardation on the child’s portrait.

On average, twenty-seven out of every thousand children born in the city’s maternity hospital fail to survive their first year. (A good rate would be fewer than ten, as in Japan.) There are also high numbers of stillbirths, aborted fetuses, and birth defects such as Down’s syndrome, anencephalia (no brain), spina bifida (absence of one or more vertebral arches), hydrocephalus (enlarged head with excessive amount of fluid), osteochondropathy (bone disease), and mutations such as clubfeet, cleft palate, and four or six fingers or toes. Once a child was born with its heart on the right side.

Increasingly, many children are born with more than one defect, and approximately 62 percent suffer with asthma. At the time of my research, there were forty-three babies in the maternity hospital nursery, ten of whom had been born prematurely. Only three incubators were available. Most birthing mothers show evidence of chronic heart disease, anemia, and low hemoglobin counts. The 150-bed clinic often runs out of antibiotics and is dependent on donations from humanitarian agencies now that the economy is so bad. The facility can offer no painkillers to mothers during delivery. Patients have to provide their own. The clinic hasn’t had an ambulance since 1990.

Local medical personnel and scientists know that there must be a critical relationship between the tragic birthrate and the polluted environment, but they have had no chance to research the problem. They cannot even be sure, nor quantify, for example, which chemicals or chemical combinations are most harmful. But at least the problem is now identified, and a few projects (often by international companies and agencies) are being initiated to release Sumgait’s chemical chokehold.

Pervasive poverty

Sumgait’s environmental problems, and those of Azerbaijan as a whole, can largely be attributed to the neglect and abuse inherent in Soviet industrial policies. Priority was given to the use and exploitation of raw materials, with no thought of recycling or environmental preservation. Programs of heavy industrialization were undertaken without regard to the quality of human life or ecology. High productivity was the sole measure of success.

Natural resources were also considered inexhaustible. The Soviet Union was, after all, a country so vast that it spanned eleven time zones. It’s not that the Soviets had no legislation protecting nature. They did. They had plenty on paper. But many of these laws were so stringent they could not be enforced. The failure to implement them was ignored, denied, covered up, or lied about. Nature was left to take care of itself. The myth was always perpetrated that everything in the USSR was equal to the highest world standards. Most believed the pollution levels were normal.

Azerbaijan’s environmentalists admit they’ve “been in a coma” in the last couple of years. Ali Guldosti of Azerbaijan’s Green Movement described the dilemma this way: “We have a stow about two frogs that fell into a jug of cream. Unable to get out, one gave up and sank to the bottom. The other decided to do the only thing he knew how–to swim. So he paddled with all his might and, in the process, churned up the cream so much that it turned into butter and he crawled out.”

The fable has a comforting ending. But for environmentalists in Azerbaijan these days, the solution to their dilemma is not so simple. “Our problem,” said Guldosti, “is that we don’t know what we’ve fallen into. Is it water or cream? Nobody pays any attention to environmental issues right now. Morally, we don’t even know if we’re right to push for them. How can we speak about planting trees when life is so hard and people can barely manage to get bread just to survive? It’s an extremely difficult time.”

Azerbaijan’s problems are compounded by pervasive poverty. Official statistics indicate that more than 90 percent of the population is impoverished. The World Bank, using different measurements, identifies slightly over 20 percent of the population as “extremely poor” and around 62 percent as living in poverty. The distinctions are fine indeed. In 1995–in figures that could not take into account the active informal economy–the annual gross domestic product was estimated at U.S. $318.50 per capita. Fortunately, inflation has been curbed: In early 1996 it was less than 5 percent, down from over 55 percent at the end of 1994.

The alleviation of poverty is not a natural consequence of economic growth. Despite the potential for developing the country’s rich oil reserves, there is no “magic bullet.” The international community has begun to challenge Azerbaijan’s government to create a systematic antipoverty strategy and to initiate policies that would stabilize the fiscal balance, privatize where appropriate, and guarantee land reforms that would not adversely affect the poor. Unfortunately, employment policies cannot necessarily alleviate the worst aspects of poverty, as the poorest citizens–particularly the old, infirm, and incapacitated–may be incapable of joining the labor force.

No less problematic is the ongoing conflict with Armenia. Since the 1994 cease-fire, about 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory has been occupied. Armenian wartime practices of land burning and mine laying have proved devastating to human, plant, and wild life. Azerbaijanis have fled the area. The deforestation that has occurred as a consequence of 1.1 million people being displaced and forced to scour the countryside in search of fuel will require decades to rectify, at best.

Clearly, the country faces extraordinary problems. Yet Azerbaijan is on the eve of becoming a significant oil partner of the West. Oil extraction and production are always potentially messy, and Azerbaijan has fifty-one on- and offshore fields with more than 10,500 wells. But oil is the key to every aspect of development in Azerbaijan, including restoration and preservation of the environment. It is my belief that protection of the environment must be developed parallel to, and not behind, economic development. Environmental protection issues can no longer be treated as afterthoughts; they must be integral parts of each new project.

To fix the future

Despite the overwhelming scale of its environmental problems, Azerbaijan still contains many places of pristine beauty. Though no larger than Maine, Azerbaijan possesses nine of the world’s eleven climatic regions. Consequently, it boasts a wide variety of native plant and animal life. Evidence of the original quality of the country’s climate, air, soil, and water is clearly found in the rates of longevity of its population, still among the highest in the world. The situation, though desperate, is not utterly beyond hope. Revolutionary changes are needed, and some are being made.

During the Soviet period, the severity of pollution was never made public. Health officials never released true statistics. The government used to compensate workers at factories where toxicity was known to be high by providing them with milk, cheese, and meat. Now, workers in certain plants, such as the aluminum factory, are required to retire after ten years because the conditions are so detrimental. In some factories, pregnant women are allowed to go on leave or to transfer out to less dangerous employment. Workers are no longer permitted to cultivate vegetable plots at some factory grounds where the pollution is considered so toxic. Environmentalists have even managed to get a few factories closed, including the Lindane plant.

But permanent changes require huge capital investments and significant international aid, without which solutions are nearly impossible. UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) is now drafting a city plan for Sumgait that includes restructuring the entire chemical sector. Several other international institutions, approached by Azerbaijan about the Sumgait situation, had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project and declined to help. Advisers such as environmentalist Arif Islamzadeh, who serves as head counselor on ecological problems to Sumgait’s mayor, believe the solution lies in converting the plants to other technologies, such as producing machinery, building equipment, electronics, or robot technology. The hope is to find a balance between protecting human health and maintaining necessary industrial production. Until then, Sumgait remains Azerbaijan’s most critical environmental problem.

To help with the reconstruction, Azerbaijan’s parliament has enacted the Sumgait Development Zone Law. This lays the foundation for the creation of a special economic zone (SEZ) that could encourage needed foreign investment, aid, and redevelopment. Currently, a legal infrastructure is being drafted that is designed to protect foreign investment, guarantee revenue repatriation, provide favorable fiscal regimes, and offer special transport fares.

Sumgait has the potential to become a dynamic trade center within the context of such an SEZ. Particular attention is being devoted to the restructuring of transport facilities (airport, seaport, railway, highways), storage and processing facilities, and administrative and financial services. The next task is to begin to attract direct foreign investment. The Sumgait Investment Center (SIC), a project cofinanced by the government of Israel and scheduled to have begun operations by February 1997, will strive to attract potential partners and facilitate the flow of new investments into existing and new industries.

According to Paolo Lembo, UN resident coordinator in Baku: “Sumgait stands as an example of how nothing is impossible when the government, the private sector, and individuals in the community unite in constructive cooperation.” Azerbaijanis often refer to Lembo as “Mr. Sumgait” because of his tireless single-mindedness in helping the SEZ, SIC, and other redevelopment projects get off the ground. “These efforts should all contribute to the rapid privatization, restructuring, and revival of the Sumgait zone,” he declares.

Because of the concentration of toxic poisons in its atmosphere, Sumgait, the petrochemical industrial hub of Azerbaijan, is called a “dead zone” by environmentalists. But the city was dying in another sense as well. Factories–and consequently employment–had disintegrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The establishment of the SEZ could be a rebirth for the nation as well as the city. If the SEZ succeeds (and all indications confirm that it will), Sumgait will eventually be transformed from one of the most polluted and industrially devastated regions of the NIS into a commercial gateway between the West and the East, North and South. It will be a vital center serving not only Azerbaijan but the entire region, including the Caucasus and Central Asia.

During field research for this essay, I encountered only one person who didn’t welcome my investigation. In Balakhani, a district near Baku where oil has been pumped for more than a hundred years, a woman complained as I aimed a camera at sheep grazing next to a creaking old “nodding donkey” oil well. “You’re no friend of Azerbaijan if you take pictures like that,” she complained. “Why don’t you photograph something beautiful?”

The oil rig stood less than thirty feet from the walled courtyard of her home, clearly a situation endangering her own health. I hope this essay proves her wrong and that most readers will understand the depth of my commitment toward “fixing the future” and restoring the health and beauty that was Azerbaijan’s not so long ago.

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