Finding Middle Ground

In the midst of political and economic transition, Central Asian republics have paid little attention to environmental protection. Almost a decade since their independencefrom the former Soviet Union, the establishment of strong national and regional environmental policies is still in the early stages of implementation. The ongoing, large-scale economic restructuring has had serious environmental implications in the region, but it was accepted that with the lack of economic and structural efficiency, it was almost impossible for the Central Asian governments to cope with environmental affairs. Priority was given to ensuring the reform of the political, economic and social situations in all Central Asian states to minimize the aftermath of the transition. However, since 1998 there has been an increasing need to establish national strategies to ensure environmental protection. The priority of all parties involved -- the governments, international donor agencies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- was to battle poverty and improve the quality of life by removing environmental constraints to economic development and empowering the people to manage their natural resources. It was believed such measures would benefit the environment, the people and subsequently, not restrict future development opportunities.

Early steps toward environmental protection

Kazakhstan is one of the few Central Asian states to have established a national environmental action plan (NEAP) and is seeking to integrate it within its economic and political reforms. Other states, like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, have followed this example and established their own NEAPs, as much as their economic and political conditions allowed it. What is easily noticeable is that the states receiving the highest economic aid were the ones that could take this step and implement environmental measures within their national strategy.

A good example emphasizing the inadequacy of industry to introduce stringent environmental measures was the cyanide spill in 1998 in Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are good examples of this, as both states have received large economic funds for diverse reasons. Kazakhstan, one of the coastal states of the Caspian, has a great stake in the exploitation and development of the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian region. The international community therefore wants to secure collaboration in any resource development plans by financially supporting the state. Over the past couple of years, foreign investment has been growing steadily, and despite the 1998 Russian economic crisis, Kazakhstan is emerging stronger than ever economically.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan has attracted the interest and economic support of the international community because of the Aral Sea. The evaporation of the Aral Sea that has taken place due to irrigation policies during the Soviet period, in addition to the continuous lack of regular water supply, has attracted economic support from various international organizations. This has led to the establishment of an Interstate Council for the Aral Sea (ICAS) that subsequently set up an International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS) in 1994. Therefore, financial assistance from organizations such as the World Bank and the growing awareness of the Aral Sea problems has paved the way for Uzbekistan's environmental policy. As the attention of the international community has turned to these states because of the implications of the above mentioned issues on the population and the overall environment of the whole Central Asian region, environmental protection has become a priority. The question that arises is: has there ac tually been a change in their approach to the environment?

Many will argue that it is still too early to see any changes and development. With only a few years of gradual action, it is too soon to assess the success of implementing environmental protection within the economic development of the Central Asian states. A good example emphasizing the inadequacy of industry to introduce stringent environmental measures was the cyanide spill in 1998 in Kyrgyzstan. The disaster was attributed to Kumtor, a joint-venture between the Kyrgyz government and the Canadian gold mining company, Cameco Corporation, with the interests of the company at stake. In reaction to a series of protests from local and international NGOs about the lack of any interest of the company to compensate the affected population in the Issyk-Kul region, the Kyrgyz government insisted that no threats were posed to the health of the people or to the environment. This incident, therefore, proves that despite the mobilisation of the public and the involvement of NGOs, priority remains with economic development. The government is found walking a thin line between promoting economic development and protecting its citizens from such dramatic consequences and environmental degradation.

Some of the largest companies in these countries have begun to consider the addition of environmental priorities in their business strategy.

Others argue that despite the attention regional environmental issues have attracted, any activities to promote environmental issues have been stagnant or moving at a very slow pace -- the most prevalent example being the attempts to create a regional environmental center (REC) for Central Asia. After endless deliberation in 1998, donor agencies committed to provide funding for the creation of a REC, but the five Central Asian states had to decide on a location. It took them one year to reach a consensus and agree on Almaty in Kazakhstan as the location for the headquarters of the REC for Central Asia. More than a year later, the structure and organization of the REC has begun to take form. With a board of directors established and the first executive director in place, the REC plans to hold a meeting to finalize the legal status of the REC and approve the first workplan for 2000-2001. The fact that it took more than two years for the regional center to be established, combined with continued concerns over the funding of the whole project, is an indication of the modest attempts to address environmental issues.

Collaboration is essential

Nevertheless, the first steps have been taken and what will follow will depend not only on the continuous support of the donor agencies, but also on the support of the governments and other interested parties. There are basically two other parties that are of great importance to the promotion of environmental strategy -- local and regional NGOs -- as representatives of the interests of the local population and the business community.


First, as representative bodies of the population seeking to ensure strong environmental strategies, NGOs have a sincere interest in promoting environmental protection. But while numbers of NGOs continue to grow in all the Central Asian states, funding is decreasing because they must depend on international foundations and donor agencies. Grants are not available for all NGOs and there are no private foundations within the Central Asian states to financially support upcoming NGOs.

Second, the business community has expressed an increasing interest in incorporating an environmental strategy. Among companies that are actively pursuing business investment in the region, some of the largest companies in these countries have begun to consider the addition of environmental priorities in their business strategy.

Businesses also seek to cooperate and establish relations with NGOs.This forced marriage may have positive results for both sides. Sponsoring the work of NGOs will establish good relations between traditional adversaries while NGOs may act as allies on further business development. On the other hand, NGOs will have the ability to influence the business sector to adopt a more sustainable approach to business development, while finding a new source of funding to pursue their aims.

Hence, stronger relations between the business sector and NGOs is clearly advantageous. Apart from ensuring such a link, particular attention must be paid to the government as the focal point of any action in safeguarding the environment. It is within this role that the government must find a balance between economic performance and sustainable development. As it has been noted, the government is also responsible for ensuring sufficient funding for the protection of the environment whether that is generated locally or provided by international donor agencies. International organizations should play a supporting role in strengthening partnerships, developing and using regional experience accordingly and disseminating knowledge. Once priority is given to environmental protection, improvement of the quality of life and the elimination of poverty will no longer be a distant dream for the Central Asian states.

Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Central Asia


Law and Environment Eurasian Partnership

Project for Economic Reform and Development in Central Asia (PERDCA)

Daphne Biliouri is an environmental policy consultant and analyst for Eurasia. She is currently based in the UK and is working on a variety of projects on the Central Asian region. She can be reached via e-mail at

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.