The Fergana Valley, home to more than 15 million people, is the agricultural powerhouse of Central Asia. First mentioned in the Chinese chronicles over 2,000 years ago, it was an important element of the Silk Road, and its significance has not waned. The vast valley, which runs through eastern Uzbekistan, the southern Kyrgyz Republic and northern Tajikistan, owes its fertility to the Syr Darya River and its tributaries. This unique ecosystem is facing an environmental threat, however, which is not widely known, but which could have irreversible consequences for both the Fergana Valley itself and for Central Asia more broadly.
Here in the mountainous areas above the Syr Darya, Soviet geologists discovered significant deposits of uranium, a key element in the Cold War between East and West. Uranium mining-related activity in the region began in the mid-1940s and lasted almost half a century. With many deposits depleted, production had largely stopped by the early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that most of the mining and processing sites were abandoned. Mine shafts and tunnels remained open and accessible to local people and livestock. Waste rock and low-grade ore dumps and tailings were not properly covered, leading to the continuous release of contaminants. The material threat of radioactive and toxic waste filtering into the river system across the Fergana Valley and contaminating water used for drinking and irrigation persisted.
Pollution recognises no borders, and handling the legacy of Soviet uranium mining became a truly international and urgent task. A corresponding resolution by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 called for international solidarity in dealing with the issue. In response, the European Union (EU) broadened its support for Central Asia, while the International Atomic Energy Agency led efforts to develop a strategic master plan for the most contaminated sites in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In 2015, the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) was established on the initiative of the EU. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), with decades of experience in dealing with decommissioning and remediation tasks in many countries, was invited to manage the ERA.
Seven priority sites were identified in the three countries: Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar in the Kyrgyz Republic; Degmay and Istiklol in Tajikistan; and Charkesar and Yangiabad in Uzbekistan. Thanks to a major contribution from the EU, as well as donations by Belgium, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the United States of America, the ERA had accumulated enough funds to start remediation work in the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan. Between 2020 and 2022, two Kyrgyz sites (Min-Kush and Shekaftar) were fully remediated on schedule and below budget. Work is under way in Mailuu-Suu, Charkesar and Yangiabad. Once rehabilitated, these areas will be environmentally safe, allowing livelihoods and tourism to flourish.
However, more funds are needed to complete the task. The total cost of the programme was estimated at €85 million. Half of this amount, which has yet to be collected, is required to remediate former uranium mining sites in Tajikistan. Degmay, located by the Syr Darya River and just 10 km from the regional capital, Khujand, contains around 36 million tonnes of radioactive waste. The mining facility near the village of Istiklol, located 40 km from Khujand, spans more than 400 hectares. Both Tajik sites pose a daily hazard to the area’s population of close to 1 million people, as well as the environment.
According to Esther Harlander, Head of ERA, grant funds allocated by donors have already facilitated the closure of mine openings, the demolition of derelict uranium ore processing facilities, and the recultivation of waste dumps and tailings in multiple locations across Central Asia.
“Since the 1990s, Cold War uranium legacies have been successfully addressed in countries such as the United States of America and Germany,” she says. “Central Asia is lagging in this regard and looking for technical and financial support from the international community. We are grateful to the ERA donors for their assistance so far and are calling for more contributions to finally put an end to this toxic heritage.”