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WECF director calls for urgent measures to halt water pollution from uranium mining tailings in Central Asia at Environment for Europe Conference in Astana.

WECF director Sascha Gabizon – co-chair of the European Eco-Forum – addressed ministers of environment of the 56 countries of the UNECE region in her plenary address at 7th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Astana, Kazakhstan

25.09.2011 |Chantal van den Bossche

WECF director Sascha Gabizon – co-chair of the European Eco-Forum –  addressed the ministers of environment of the 56 countries of the UNECE region in her plenary address on Thursday 22 of September, at the 7th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Astana.

Read the full plenary speech

She called for immediate urgent action to contain the old uranium mining tailings in Central Asia, in particular in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which threaten to irreversibly contaminate the transboundary groundwater aquifers. She recommended that the negotiated text of the UNCSD19 session on mining, which includes good policy proposals for rehabilitation of old mines, should be used to develop a framework for rapid action on clean-up of uranium mines in the Eastern European, Caucusus and Central Asian. Best practices from the rehabilitation of uranium mines in the EU can provide guidance, in particular the Wismut uranium mine in Germany, which is setting standards for full clean up. The cost of full clean up are impossible to be paid by middle income countries in Central Asia and an international financial mechanisms is needed, with contributions from the nuclear energy sector. This should be an outcome of the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in 2012 in Brazil.

In the side-lines, Sascha Gabizon remarked on the tragedy that Kazakhstan, the host country for the conference, continues to use chrysotile asbestos as the main building material. Chrysotile asbestos kills more than 100,000 people each year. The Minister of Kazakhstan responded by saying that there was no danger for the international guests, as the buildings in Astana in which they were lodged were built by international architects and companies. The Ministers of Environment and Health of the region have committed to developing a national plan on elimination of asbestos related diseases. More than 50 years of research and policy measures on chrysotile asbestos have shown that 'controlled use' of asbestos is not possible. However, Kazakhstan has an asbestos mine, and is an exporter of asbestos. Its asbestos industry lobby says that 'controlled use' is possible, and accuses WECF of trying to destroy the Kazakh industry. The WHO Europe has obtained the mandate at the 5th Parma Conference on Environment and Health, to help Kazakhstan and the other EECCA governments to elminate asbestos related diseases. Currently however, companies and not the states are responsible for occupational health, which makes that there is no data available on the number of people in the EECCA region who die from asbestos.

Sanitation for rural areas
Referring to an epidemiological study done in Uzbekistan, Sascha Gabizon showed the unacceptable  diarrheal  disease burden of small children under age 2, due to a lack of safe sanitation and water. Unfortunately, funding for local authorities and NGOs to improve the situation does not exist, the EBRD and other international finance organisations claim they are unable to finance sanitation for small communities of up to 5,000 people, despite the fact that EBRD obtained money from member states to help address especially this problem, with the EBRD 'Water Fund'.

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