The Poisonous Air of Atyrau, Kazakhstan
Air pollution has become a serious problem in many cities and towns in Central Asia, but Kazakhstan’s western city of Atyrau has been experiencing an alarming concentration of toxic chemicals in the air recently.
On April 8, officials in the Caspian port city of Atyrau, population approximately 370,000, announced excessive amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur in the air.
In the residential neighborhood of Shagala, the level of hydrogen sulfide in the air was 20 times more than normal.
Hydrogen sulfide has a foul smell, is highly toxic, and can damage the respiratory system and skin.
Residents have been reporting thick smog covering Atyrau since late March.
Officials initially blamed a fire that broke out in a large field of reeds outside the city as the cause of the smog.
But many residents of Atyrau suspect the nearby oil refinery is the source of the air pollution.
Some 500 Atyrau residents gathered outside a city stadium on April 9.
They demanded the government and large enterprises operating in the area carry out an investigation on the effects of the oil and natural gas sector on the health of the people living in Atyrau.
There was no word on whether the government or any of the oil and gas companies in the Atyrau area responded to the demands of the Atyrau residents.
Why It’s Important: Air pollution has become one of Central Asia’s biggest problems as the countries expand their industries, many of which are based on extraction and processing of raw materials.
The governments’ desire for more revenue has often made environmental concerns secondary considerations at best.
The Atyrau refinery was fined in 2022 for ecological damages.
The fine was equivalent to $11,000 -- hardly enough to force management to invest millions of dollars in more efficient technologies that create less pollution.
Kazakhstan is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement and is receiving financial assistance to fulfill commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A Call for Targeted Sanctions on Tajik Officials
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s (NHC) representative is calling for international sanctions targeting Tajik officials who are making “a mockery of justice and rule of law.”
NHC’s regional representative in Central Asia, Marius Fossum, was responding in a tweet to news about independent Tajik journalist Khurshed Fozilov facing charges of cooperation with a banned organization.
Fozilov was detained on March 6 in Tajikistan’s western city of Penjikent. Shortly after that he was charged, originally, with making public calls for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order in Tajikistan.
NHC released a statement in late March noting Tajik authorities “have not provided any further public information about [Fozilov’s] alleged wrongdoing.”
The NHC statement said Fozilov “mostly wrote on the issues faced by the people in the Zarafshan Valley, frequently criticizing local government.” The organization also brought attention to five other Tajik journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned since September 2022, four of them convicted on the same charge Fozilov now faces.
Fossum suggested the Tajik government officials responsible for the crackdown on journalists should be subjected to Magnitsky sanctions.
Such sanctions would allow individual governments to freeze assets of Tajik officials and ban them from entering the territories of countries supporting the sanctions.
Since May 2022, when Tajik security forces carried out a brutal operation in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, dozens of journalists, bloggers, rights activists, and others have been detained.
In closed trials, most were convicted of extremism, or ties to extremist groups, or of making public calls for the overthrow of the government.
Why It’s Important: For many months, Tajik authorities have been shrugging off calls and appeals from governments and international organizations to stop the ongoing and widespread campaign of repression in Tajikistan.
The Tajik government has paid no attention to these calls and appeals.
Clearly, new tactics are needed to convince Tajik authorities to rein in their abuses.
Singling out those responsible by going after their money and limiting their ability to travel might prove more effective in persuading them to correct their policies.