Aslan Abbasov stands in the middle of the state run Azerchimia chemical factory in Sumgait, a vast Soviet-built industrial complex 20 kilometres north of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Rusty pipes stretch into the distance. Most of the buildings are wrecked. The air is heavy with the smell of chemicals. There is not a blade of grass in sight. “When I come in here I think of the battle of Stalingrad,” says Mr Abbasov, the plant’s director. “So much of the factory is falling down but we still continue production. There are large amounts of toxic chemicals about. We need millions of dollars to clean up the mess here but the funds are difficult to come by.”
The industrial centre of Sumgait had been one of the most important producers of chemicals and associated materials in the former USSR. With independence gained in 1991 Azerbaijan suddenly lost the captive Soviet market for its goods. Much of the country’s infrastructure is in serious need of repair. Since independence, more than a million have left the country in search of jobs. According to a UN estimate, more than 50% of Azerbaijan’s population live below the poverty line. Industries in Sumgait once employed 45,000 - now only about 5,000 work at the complex. Workers say that environmental controls that existed in the old Soviet days have largely disappeared.
High cancer levels
Many workers at Azerchimia - earning on average between $80 and $100 per month - walk about without protective clothing. Several of the working areas at the plant, which produces chlorine and other substances, have no roofs - with rust eating away at the old buildings management decided it was better to take the roofs off rather than have them collapse on the workforce.
Large amounts of highly toxic substances like mercury and lindane are strewn over a large area. A UNDP report published in 1996 referred to the “apocalyptic state of Sumgait’s environment”.
While production cutbacks have resulted in less overall pollution, little rehabilitation work has been done. “People here still suffer from high levels of cancer and other diseases,” says Khalida Yuliyeva, chief paediatrician for the city of Sumgait, which now has a population of 350,000. “Other problems, like a high occurrence of still births and various birth defects, can continue for many years after the actual pollution has gone away.”
Revenues from recently discovered oil and gas supplies could be used to tackle Sumgait’s environmental problems.
Free economic zone
Foreign companies have begun exploiting what are considered to be some of the world’s largest remaining untapped energy reserves in the Caspian Sea. Billions of dollars of revenue will flow into Azerbaijan’s coffers.
“We are well aware of the problems we face,” says Gussein Bagirov, Azerbaijan’s minister of ecology and natural resources. “One proposal is to turn the Sumgait complex into a free economic zone, funds from which would support a clean-up. Oil revenues will also be used to remove environmental hazards.” Yet though revenues from oil might provide a solution at Sumgait, oil is also the cause of Azerbaijan’s other main environmental problem.
A start has been made at tackling some environmental problems. The World Bank has funded a $3m landfill site near Sumgait to dispose of mercury waste. However cash strapped factories lack funds to pay the disposal charges and, as production continues, mercury continues to be stockpiled at the industrial complex.
“Everyone wants to see action to clean up Azerbaijan’s environment but it’s a huge task,” says Ahmed Jehani, the World Bank’s representative in Baku. “There are no clear figures about how much it will all cost but the figures are very big - in the billions. We can only hope that the country spends its oil revenues wisely.”