Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 12:00 UK

Pollution and poverty in Kyrgyzstan

By Alex Kirby
Kyrgyzstan

Twenty years after independence, the small Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan remains one of the poorest parts of the former Soviet Union, struggling to make its way in a complex and sometimes hostile world.

Kyrgyz herdsmen looking after sheep (Photo: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union.

There is something of Arcadia about Kyrgyzstan in the spring.

Heading out of the southern city of Osh, you pass apple and apricot orchards, with the road climbing every now and then to cross a spur of the mountains which march close at hand along the Tajik and Uzbek borders.

And when it does, the vistas transfix you, long upland valleys reaching through the juniper forests towards the snow line, their flanks close-cropped and neat as a suburban golf course, thanks to the herds of fat-tailed sheep and other livestock.

There are not as many sheep as there were in Soviet times, when Kyrgyzstan was expected to provide winter overcoats for the world's largest army but there are still plenty. You never really escape the pervasive whiff of mutton.

We were heading for the small town of Khaidarkan, home to the only mercury mine in the world which is still exporting its output.

Mercury threat

But not for much longer. There is international agreement that mercury is such a threat to health and the environment that mining should stop, with essential uses relying on recycled mercury until substitutes are available and it can be phased out completely.

So Khaidarkan is, understandably, a worried town.

You reach it by crossing a pass over 7,000 feet (2,100m) high, then dropping slightly into the small, ramshackle settlement overshadowed by the encircling peaks.

The most prominent features of Khaidarkan are the massive waste tips which stretch along the valley, interspersed with pools of mercury-contaminated sludge which the local cattle lap thirstily.

The mine's employees have not been paid since November

Seventy years ago there was even less to Khaidarkan.

The pit did not exist until the early 1940s, when Josef Stalin resolved that the Nazis should not get their hands on his mercury mine in Ukraine, had everything that was portable loaded onto a train, and sent it all, smelter, production equipment, and probably the winding gear itself, to distant Kyrgyzstan.

Today the town is quiet. The mine's employees have not been paid since November, and many have gone north to seek a wage in Kazakhstan or Russia.

There are a few border guards, still sporting those improbable Soviet military peaked caps almost the size of a bicycle wheel.

Kyrgyzstan

Most of those who have stayed behind are friendly enough. There was the shepherd who had just ridden home from a day in the mountains, yet slipped from the saddle and asked us in to share a meal with his family.

In the market - the stalls laden with pistachios, cherries and strawberries - there was the elderly lady who explained how she supports her son, a miner.

"I'm 76, but I come here and sell what I can to make sure he can keep going," she said. One of her friends called out: "And tell them how your boyfriend helps to keep you going."

Going underground

The one classically frosty reception came from the mine manager.

He told my UN companions they had a hidden agenda, to ensure that the mine was closed.

What they are trying to do, in fact, is to find ways of keeping it in business, once the world turns its back on mercury.

But, for him, they were the enemy, until I ambled into his sights.

After travelling several thousand miles to Khaidarkan, I thought at least I should appear interested enough to want to see the mine at first hand.

Asked if I could descend to the galleries where the mercury ore was being dug out, the manager rasped: "Tell me about your professional background."

I barely had time to say that I had worked for the BBC than he pounced. "Once a journalist, always a journalist," he said.

Electrocution risk

"You're not going down my mine." Stung by this rejection, I told him I had not wanted to go down the mine anyway.

I had asked to do so only from some cock-eyed notion of what was expected of visitors. So he could keep his secrets, and I would happily stay up top in the evening sun.

In fact the UN team had told me what it is like 1,200 feet (360m) down in the galleries.

At one point you have to walk through knee-deep water while remembering not to raise your head, for fear of touching the live electric cables which loop along the tunnel roof.

Water rivalry

I left Khaidarkan soon after, happy to have escaped electrocution.

Back in the capital, Bishkek, not many people seemed very interested in the fate of the mine.

What is preoccupying many Kyrgyz is the difficulty which can only increase of reconciling the country's need for water with the demands of their neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan relies on hydropower for 90% of its electricity. The other 'stans' rely on its water for their agriculture.

And there is nobody in Moscow now to knock their heads together and make them share it.

A fruit stall in Bishkek (Photos: MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Kyrgyzstan has to reconcile its need for water with its neighbours' demands.

But there are hopes that China will step in. It is preparing to sign an agreement to exploit the waters of the river Sary-Djaz, which flows from Kyrgyzstan's eastern mountains into western China, to generate hydropower.

And if it does get involved, that will mean a new and very powerful friend for the Kyrgyz.

"Why don't you just talk to your neighbours about the dispute," I asked one scientist.

"Oh," he said, "we invite them - but they never turn up, unless there's an emergency."

"Yes", muttered a colleague. "They come then, with their Kalashnikovs."

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