Azerbaijan's post-industrial hangover
|By Kieran Cooke
Aslan Abbasov stands in the middle of the state run
Azerchimia chemical factory in Sumgait, a vast Soviet built
industrial complex 20km north of Baku, the capital of
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."
Azerbaijan, a country of eight million on the shores of the
Caspian Sea in the southern Caucasus region, gained its
independence from the old Soviet Union in 1991. Up until that
time the industrial centre of Sumgait had been one of the most
important producers of chemicals and associated materials in the
With independence Azerbaijan suddenly lost the captive Soviet
market for its goods. 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
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
amounts of highly toxic substances like mercury and lindane are
strewn over a large area.
A report by the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) produced in 1996 talked of 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
"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
||The children get dizzy
spells, the fumes from the oil makes them lose their
appetites - sometimes they go for days without eating
Karabakh refugee living in oilfields
In the mid 19th Century there was an oil boom in the Caspian
region and the world's first commercial oil well was drilled
near Baku. By 1900 the Caspian area was supplying more than half
the world's oil.
The detritus from those times and the later Soviet period is
still very visible. At Bibi Heybat, a few kilometres south of
Baku, a forest of ancient oil derricks and "nodding donkeys" -
the old oil extraction machines - covers the shore line. Many
are still in operation, operated by Socar, the Azerbaijani state
A large number of families live among leaking pipes and lakes
filled with oil and raw sewage. Many are refugees, forced from
their farmlands following the bloody territorial dispute between
Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the
late 1980s and early 90s.
||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
World Bank Baku representative
"The smell of oil causes us severe headaches and we've developed
liver problems" says one refugee, a mother of three young
children. "The children get dizzy spells, especially in summer
when the air is still. The fumes from the oil makes them lose
their appetites - sometimes they go for days without eating."
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
"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."