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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 May, 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Azerbaijan's post-industrial hangover
By Kieran Cooke
BBC, Azerbaijan

Aslan Abbasov stands in the middle of the state run Azerchimia chemical factory in Sumgait, a vast Soviet built industrial complex 20km north of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

Rusty pipes stretch into the distance. Most of the buildings are wrecked. The air is heavy with the smell of chemicals. There is not a blade of grass in sight.

Sumgait factory
Highly toxic substances are strewn all over the factory
"When I come in here I think of the battle of Stalingrad," says Mr Abbasov, the plant's director.

"So much of the factory is falling down but we still continue production. There are large amounts of toxic chemicals about. We need millions of dollars to clean up the mess here but the funds are difficult to come by."

Azerbaijan, a country of eight million on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the southern Caucasus region, gained its independence from the old Soviet Union in 1991. Up until that time the industrial centre of Sumgait had been one of the most important producers of chemicals and associated materials in the former USSR.

With independence Azerbaijan suddenly lost the captive Soviet market for its goods. Industries in Sumgait once employed 45,000 - now only about 5,000 work at the complex. Workers say that environmental controls that existed in the old Soviet days have largely disappeared.

High cancer levels

Many workers at Azerchimia - earning on average between $80 and $100 per month - walk about without protective clothing. Several of the working areas at the plant, which produces chlorine and other substances, have no roofs - with rust eating away at the old buildings management decided it was better to take the roofs off rather than have them collapse on the workforce.

Large amounts of highly toxic substances like mercury and lindane are strewn over a large area. A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produced in 1996 talked of the "apocalyptic state of Sumgait's environment".

While production cutbacks have resulted in less overall pollution, little rehabilitation work has been done.

"People here still suffer from high levels of cancer and other diseases," says Khalida Yuliyeva, chief paediatrician for the city of Sumgait, which now has a population of 350,000.

"Other problems, like a high occurrence of still births and various birth defects, can continue for many years after the actual pollution has gone away."

Revenues from recently discovered oil and gas supplies could be used to tackle Sumgait's environmental problems.

'Free economic zone'

Foreign companies have begun exploiting what are considered to be some of the world's largest remaining untapped energy reserves in the Caspian Sea.

Nodding donkey
USSR oil industry detritus is another ecological headache
Billions of dollars of revenue will flow into Azerbaijan's coffers.

"We are well aware of the problems we face," says Gussein Bagirov, Azerbaijan's minister of ecology and natural resources.

"One proposal is to turn the Sumgait complex into a free economic zone, funds from which would support a clean-up. Oil revenues will also be used to remove environmental hazards."

Yet though revenues from oil might provide a solution at Sumgait, oil is also the cause of Azerbaijan's other main environmental problem.

The children get dizzy spells, the fumes from the oil makes them lose their appetites - sometimes they go for days without eating
Karabakh refugee living in oilfields
In the mid 19th Century there was an oil boom in the Caspian region and the world's first commercial oil well was drilled near Baku. By 1900 the Caspian area was supplying more than half the world's oil.

The detritus from those times and the later Soviet period is still very visible. At Bibi Heybat, a few kilometres south of Baku, a forest of ancient oil derricks and "nodding donkeys" - the old oil extraction machines - covers the shore line. Many are still in operation, operated by Socar, the Azerbaijani state oil concern.

'Liver problems'

A large number of families live among leaking pipes and lakes filled with oil and raw sewage. Many are refugees, forced from their farmlands following the bloody territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the late 1980s and early 90s.

There are no clear figures about how much it will all cost but the figures are very big - in the billions, we can only hope that the country spends its oil revenues wisely
Ahmed Jehani
World Bank Baku representative
"The smell of oil causes us severe headaches and we've developed liver problems" says one refugee, a mother of three young children. "The children get dizzy spells, especially in summer when the air is still. The fumes from the oil makes them lose their appetites - sometimes they go for days without eating."

A start has been made at tackling some environmental problems. The World Bank has funded a $3m landfill site near Sumgait to dispose of mercury waste. However, cash strapped factories lack funds to pay the disposal charges and, as production continues, mercury continues to be stockpiled at the industrial complex.

"Everyone wants to see action to clean up Azerbaijan's environment but it's a huge task," says Ahmed Jehani, the World Bank's representative in Baku.

"There are no clear figures about how much it will all cost but the figures are very big - in the billions. We can only hope that the country spends its oil revenues wisely."

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Country profile: Azerbaijan
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