Emergency workers in Kyrgyzstan are monitoring potential landslide sights which pose a potential threat to nuclear waste dumps in and around the southern town of Mailuu-Suu. This follows a recent landslip which only just missed a radioactive dump.
"The situation around Mailuu-Suu has stabilised and our specialists are constantly monitoring landslide-prone areas close to the uranium waste dumps on the ground," Emil Akmatov, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz emergency ministry, told IRIN on Tuesday from the capital, Bishkek.
On 13 April, a landslide of 300,000 cu metres hit the area surrounding Mailuu-Suu causing concern among authorities given the proximity to huge radioactive dumps left behind from Soviet-era uranium mines. The land movement halted the flow of a key river and water source in Mailuu-Suu and blocked the road linking the town with the adjacent village of Sary-Bee, according to the emergency ministry. The ministry said that part of the landslide was alarmingly close to radioactive waste dump number three, one of many in the area.
It is feared a landslide could disturb one of the dumps and either expose radioactive material within the core of the enormous waste piles or push part of them into nearby rivers.
This could contaminate water drunk by hundreds of thousands of people in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The risk of further landslides in the area remains high as unstable hillsides saturated with water from winter snow and recent rains are prone to collapse. Such a collapse is likely to be triggered by the many minor earthquakes that have occurred with increasing frequency in Kyrgyzstan over the past few years, emergency experts explained.
Following the recent landslide, environmental bodies and civic groups from both Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan have become increasingly concerned about the situation. On 18 April a group of Uzbek environmental experts, emergency officials and independent environmental groups, visited the area and assessed the situation.
"They checked water, soil and air for radioactive pollution and found that everything was within the norms," Akmatov said. Some 3,000 residents of the Sary-Bee village, upstream but also on the Mailuu-Suu River, remained cut off from Mailuu-Suu town and the only communication link was via a tiny old bridge. Given the further risk of landslides in the area and the huge amount of earth covering the road, the local authorities could not start the clean-up work, Akmatov said.
"There is still landslide activity going on in the area and therefore we are waiting for the situation to improve. The height of the earth covering the road is up to 10 metres," said Paizulla Kenjebaev, acting head of civil defence unit of the southern Jalal-Abad province, where Mailuu-Suu is located.
Landslides are the greatest threat to the uranium dumps in the area, particularly in the Koi-Tash and Izolit areas around the town which is a seismically active area. From 1946 to 1968, more than 10,000 mt of uranium ore were extracted from the Mailuu-Suu uranium mine and processed at local plants. The Kyrgyz emergency ministry reported that there are some 2 million cu metres of radioactive waste currently being stored in 23 dumps and 13 ‘tailings’ in the area.
The Central Asian region is prone to various natural disasters, including earthquakes, landslides, floods, avalanches and drought. According to the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), natural disasters have killed about 2,500 people and affected some 5.5 million, almost 10 percent of the total population in the region, over the past decade.