: / In Kyrgyzstan / Society

Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[10.12.23] Kyrgyzstan: Focus on Dying Mining Towns

Life in small industrial towns in southern Kyrgyzstan continues to ebb away in the face of an ongoing crisis in the country's mining industry. Nayman is an urbanized settlement, named after the nomadic tribe that used to live in this part of Kyrgyzstan, some 70 km west of Osh, was founded at the end of 1950s with the primary aim of housing workers in the local mining industry. It was built, like other similar towns in Soviet times, by prisoners. Nayman also had plants to produce mercury, fire-bricks and shoes.
Today, however, all this has gone, and half the town is in ruins due to the recession affecting the mining industry. "Industrial buildings are dismantled for bricks - everything is sold, houses and buildings are condemned," Shakhzada Jakypova, a 35-year-old local resident told IRIN in Nayman.
According to the association of cities and towns of Kyrgyzstan, almost all the country's small towns, especially those in the south are in the same critical situation.
There is no public transport and constant cuts in drinking water supplies - long queues line the way to water taps. "We drink water from irrigation ditches after having boiled it, of course. But is there any guarantee that children won't drink un-boiled water and get sick?" Darya, a local nursery school teacher, told IRIN.
"People often cook their food in yards in the open air as there are every now and then electricity cuts. It is especially difficult for those, living in multistoried buildings," Yekaterina Petrova, the chairwoman of the Nayman women's council, told IRIN. "People are running out of wood, but winter is approaching."
Actually, all the town's young people are out of work or doing odd jobs like dismantling buildings. Nobody knows how many buildings have had this treatment. "They target even the most sacred [places]: they steal metal fences in the cemeteries," says Rosa, who has been living in Nayman for almost three decades.
"There is no manufacturing industry left, so resources for the development of the town are not coming, so I reckon that our town is dying silently," Uluk Matismanov, the head of the local administration, told IRIN.
According to the local administration, almost half the town's inhabitants have left over the past few years, some for the capital, Bishkek, others for relatively more prosperous Kazakhstan and Russia. "Only elderly people are left and they are those who cannot go anywhere and don't have the means of doing so," said Kunduz Bostonova, a local resident in her middle 40s.
So, mining towns, which were privileged places during the Soviet era, are now experiencing their worst days, presenting a gloomy picture of the situation on the ground. In Kok-Yangak town in Jalal-Abad Province, some 30 single-storeyed buildings and nine multistoried blocks of flats were demolished.
"I was born, grew up and got married in this town," Valentina, a former resident of Kok-Yangak told IRIN in Jalal-Abad city. "We bought a two-bedroom flat, but lived there only for a year. Our neighbors all moved, having sold their flats for ridiculous prices - you wouldn't believe it, sometimes for between US $100 and $150. They [buyers] wouldn't give more. Local dealers started dismantling the building - a good three-storied block - for construction materials."
According to her, initially, buildings were being dismantled at night, but later the dealers started doing so openly, in daylight. Doors, window-frames, wooden floors were taken to the provincial capital, where they were sold at fabulous prices, feeding a construction boom in other, more promising settlements.
"I found myself with two children in the ruins, with no alternative but to go to my relatives in Jalal-Abad, so we are cooped-up in one of their rooms," said Valentina.
The local employment center told IRIN that more than 70 percent of Kok-Yangak's able-bodied population was out of work, while the local mine was on the edge of bankruptcy.
"The youth are facing a dilemma of where to go - to a highway to rob or to derelict coal mines to extract coal with a pick and a shovel," Tajibay-Ata, an elderly miner, told IRIN in Kok-Yangak.
The pitmen earning their daily bread by illegal old-fashioned methods of extracting solid fuel are called Apaches by local people because unauthorized coal mining is very risky. Every year young men are killed in old mines due to accidents.
Heavy environmental pollution, constant lack of clean drinking water, and occupational illnesses such as respiratory and locomotor diseases chronically affect the mining settlements. But problems like these have not been addressed for decades.
Valentina Volskaia, a journalist working for the local Za Ugol (For Coal) newspaper, told IRIN in Kyzyl-Kyya that up to 100,000 saplings were being planted in the spring of every year in this small industrial town, but only between 15 percent to 20 percent of them were taking root, with the rest drying up because of lack of water. "I don't know whether I will be able to see my grandchildren splashing about in an irrigation ditch full of water," sighed Tashbek Kamchibekov, a former driver at the local mine management department.
Analysts say the only real way to halt the migration of people from industrial towns is the rehabilitation of old industries, coupled with job-creation. A view shared by Ainagul Almambekova, the head of the local Vital NGO, based in Jalal-Abad. The civic society group has developed and is implementing with the help of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) a project to manufacture fuel bricks using coal dust.
The project has employed a group of local young people, and is also working towards resolving a serious ecological problem: environmental pollution caused by coal dust in the vicinity of the town.
In an effort to address the issue, the UNDP's LIFE program was implementing about 40 projects in the smaller towns of southern Kyrgyzstan, Chyngyz Makeshev, the programs administrative assistant, told IRIN. The projects cover areas like the provision of safe drinking water, construction of public baths, rubbish disposal and the establishment of small production facilities.
Leaders of the local communities reportedly praised this method of assistance by the international community. However, some NGOs complained of the indifference of officials in this context. "We would like to work together with them, but it turns out that everyone is approaching problems on his own," Almambekova noted.
Given the situation after the demise of proactive urbanization, all the inhabitants of the small towns are eyeing the lands and pastures of the adjacent rural areas as a potential source of much-needed income by way of farming and cattle breeding. However, there is hardly any spare land suitable for these purposes, as most of it has been allocated to rural people under a land reform process.
"The only thing to do is to reach an understanding with our rural colleagues," Turdunazir Bekboev, the head of the Suzak District administration in Jalal-Abad Province, told IRIN. "We helped Kok-Yangak residents to rent 500 ha of pasture in Bagysh village. The same method is employed in the Suluktu mining town of Batken Province: they rent 250 ha in the neighboring Laylak District."
According to Abdygany Karimov, the mayor of Suluktu, reviving the mining industry would imbue these places with new life. Both local communities and officials in the mining towns are urging the government to provide support for this vital industry. Some local experts noted that the country should revert to using its own coal resources instead of buying the fuel from neighboring countries, particularly Kazakhstan.
The Suluktu mines used to produce up to a 1 million mt of coal a year, but this year only 80,000 mt was produced, which was not even sold. "We've coal reserves for hundreds of years. If just the government could help us to sell it off," Karimov said, noting that about 20 years ago up to 3 million mt of coal was being produced annually.
Local experts believe that the situation can be transformed, firstly by way of investment, both local and foreign. But the issue is how to engage the interest of potential partners, which is a priority not only for the regions but for the whole country.
"We have founded a civil commission for attracting grants and investments," Aleksandr Soloviev, the head of the Kyzyl-Kyya municipal property department, told IRIN, adding that his department was cooperating with the Urban Institute, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the EC's TACIS program.
In this context, it had been possible to replace half a kilometer of worn-out water piping by virtue of a grant provided by the Urban Institute, Soloviev said. However, another 314 km of piping is awaiting its turn for renewal. But he noted that local people were optimistic, saying that a good beginning had been made.
The local authorities stress the need to develop small and medium enterprises. They advocate relocation of some educational institutions or military units from cities to the periphery, where there is plenty of vacant accommodation to house them.
"It is necessary to enhance the prestige of the mining profession as well as the industry itself," Makhamajan Sharafutdinov, an official from the Kyzyl-Kyya Ugol enterprise, told IRIN. "There need to be decent earnings and pensions, given that very skilled workers are leaving, while it takes at least four or five years to train a qualified mining worker or drift miner."
Meanwhile, central government has adopted a state concept on developing small towns in an effort to tackle their problems. The 31-clause document envisages measures for the rehabilitation of industrial manufacturing and improvement of the social and utilities infrastructure of the settlements.
In that context, in June, Nikolay Tanayev, the Prime Minister, ordered provincial administrations to develop and endorse local programs for the socioeconomic development of small industrial towns. Moreover, tasks for ministries and other government bodies were identified "for the sake of identifying development strategy, attracting investments, mobilization and concentration of the inner potential", according to the document.
"There are plenty of good state programs, but the problem is that they are not supported by funds," Ismail Masaitov, the head of the Osh provincial social fund department and a former head of Kyzyl-Kyya and Tash-Komur town administrations, told IRIN in Osh. According to him, it was important to utilize the remaining qualified personnel and industrial potential.
"It is still possible to set production of competitive products on the basis of remaining enterprises instead of being too keen on importing cheap goods. There needs to be support for domestic producers," Masaitov, a prominent official and expert maintained.
"Aid programs are good, but it is we who live here, so we must revive the life here," said a 22-year-old Takhir from Kok-Yangak, who makes his living by extracting coal from a derelict mine.
He was one of the first of the so-called Apaches who responded to the appeal by the authorities to legalize their business, which meant paying taxes, contributions to social funds and taking care of working conditions. However, residents here understand that dying towns are a very complicated issue and that a great deal of work will have to be done to revive them.
IRIN, December 10, 2003

More on the issue: