A landslide which hit the area surrounding the southern Kyrgyz town of Mailuu-Suu on Wednesday evening is causing concern among the authorities because of its proximity to huge radioactive dumps 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, an official told IRIN on Thursday.
"A land mass of around 300,000 cu metres, several hundred metres in width and up to 10 metres high ripped across the river Mailuu-Suu forming a blockage," Sadik Khajimamatov, deputy head of the provincial civil defence unit, told IRIN from the southern city of Jalal-Abad, capital of the province where Mailuu-Suu is located.
According to the Kyrgyz emergency ministry, part of the landslide is alarmingly close to radioactive waste dump number three – one of many in the area. A landslide could disturb the dumps and either expose radioactive material within the core of the enormous waste piles or push part of them into nearby rivers, contaminating water drunk by hundreds of thousands of people. The risk of further landslides in the area is high as unstable hillsides saturated with water from winter snow and recent rains are prone to collapse.
Around 3,000 residents of the Sary-Bee village were cut off and local authorities were planning to provide supplies to affected people via mountain paths until the road is cleared. No casualties have been reported.
Mailuu-Suu municipality officials told IRIN that clean-up work had not started yet due to the continuing risk of landslides in the area. According to the monitoring and forecasting department of the emergency ministry, the recent landslide did not currently pose a direct threat to local residents or to nuclear waste dumps in the vicinity.
In 2002, a landslide in the same area partially blocked the river, causing it to alter its course and run through radioactive areas, exposing highly dangerous parts of the dumps which the water washed through. Emergency measures were taken and the exposed radioactive areas were covered with thick concrete to make them safe.
The World Bank and the Kyrgyz government signed a US $11.7 million deal in 2004 aimed at reducing the risk posed my nuclear dumps in the Ferghana Valley, one of the most densely populated areas in Central Asia and home to some 10 million people. But experts say cleaning up the dumps – scattered throughout the valley and close to abandoned uranium mines - would take hundreds of millions of dollars.
The emergency ministry warned that the risk of landslides around Mailuu-Suu and in the area of Min-Kush in central Kyrgyzstan, where there were also radioactive dumps, remained high.
Emergency assessment teams were on the ground on Thursday, estimating the damage and the amount of work necessary to eliminate the consequences of the disaster. Preliminary figures stood at around $120,000.
Landslides are the greatest threat to the uranium dumps, particularly in the Tectonic, Koi-Tash and Izolit areas around the town. 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 in the area.
The Kyrgyz emergency ministry reported that there were some 2 million cu metres of radioactive waste currently being stored in 23 dumps and 13 tailings in the area.
Both international and local experts are concerned that the dumps are unstable and pose a real risk to populations in the area. "The dumps are very fragile structures - trenches with a pit filled with clay, gravel and sand, covered just with soil," Biymyrza Toktoraliev, a Kyrgyz ecology scientist, told IRIN earlier, noting the constant risk of landslides and flooding.
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.