Aktau is a pleasant city along the Caspian Sea. But it is also a city with a grim present and past ecological story. Below we provide some of our impressions from a week in Aktau. A local journalist published our photos and text in the newspaper Lada.kz (in Russian). We do like to add that, when we picked our photos and added text, we bore in mind to use these to educate the locals on some environmental issues they may not be aware of. The English version is available below. You can read the article in Russian here:

Published in : Lada, Kazakh newspaper – language: Russian

We enjoyed the beautiful location of Aktau on the shores of the Caspian Sea. During a stroll along the coastline, we photographed locals swimming, picnicking, fishing, cycling, …

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When looking on the map, our attention was drawn by the big Koshkar-ata lake, a legacy of uranium mining and hydrometallurgical industries during Soviet times. We learned that the lake is contaminated with nearly 105 million tons of radioactive and toxic waste.

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Closer to the city we saw the ‘dead lake’, characterized by its pink colour. Also here, during Soviet times, all kinds of industrial and radioactive waste was dumped. Unfortunately, people have been allowed to settle down close to the lake, possibly unaware of the severe contamination.

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During a car ride we ended up in the center of a sand storm. Sand storms and strong winds can carry contaminated dust towards the city. This increases the potential health risks of contaminated sites (such as the Koshkar-ata lake and the ‘dead’ lake) for citizens.

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While traveling in Kazakhstan we were struck by the amount of garbage lying around. We observed that it is quite normal for people to throw empty plastic water bottles, food packages and other rubbish out of the car or train carriage. On the train from Aytrau to Aktau/ Mangyshlak we noticed that some parts along the railway were littered with garbage. Is there a lack of public awareness on the fact that waste does not belong on the streets or in nature? Maybe there is a need for education of the public that waste should be collected, but also that less waste should be produced. For example, supermarkets and small shops should refrain from handing over a plastic bag to every customer. Instead, as in Europe, they should motivate their customers to bring their own reusable bag. In this lies an immense opportunity and challenge for local authorities and ecological organizations in educating the public on environmental subjects.

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Curious about the local waste management, we learned that the majority of the city waste is collected and dumped at the Baskudyk waste dump site. Unfortunately the waste dump is close to settlements, which means that also here winds can carry contaminated dust to the city. Moreover, the waste from the villages is not collected, which was also apparent from small waste dumps around houses in village. We noticed that a large fraction at the Baskudyk waste dump consisted of empty water bottles and plastic bags. This shows that a reduction in these waste fractions could considerably reduce the waste piles.

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While driving around Aktau we were surprised to see horses and camels graze in the vicinity of the Koshkar-ata lake and waste dumps. During grazing the animals ingest contaminants with their food upon which these can accumulate in their bodies. People that eat the meat or drink the milk from these horses or camels ingest high concentrations of contaminants that may lead to negative health effects. Unfortunately, it seems that the local government and environmental organizations in the regions are not aware of the potential health hazards of animals grazing in contaminated areas.

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The first time we saw the water circulation pipes in Kazakhstan they looked very strange to us. We are not used to see water pipes above ground. We learned that the insulated pipes transport water from the desalination plant to the houses. A citizen told us that he sometimes needs to open the windows during the winter since the temperature is too high and the heating can’t be regulated. Hopefully individual heating installations will be installed in houses soon, so that energy loss can be minimized.

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Next to the water pipes in the landscape, we noticed signs of the oil industry that is present in this region.

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The symbols of the West have clearly reached Kazakhstan. The number of 4WD cars in big cities is much bigger in Kazakhstan than in most European cities, and iphones are omnipresent. We visited brand new fancy shopping malls in Astana, Almaty and Aktau. It is good that the country thrives well as a result of the extraction and export its natural resources, but we do hope that the Kazakh people understand that the symbols of welfare in the west are superficial and not the road to happiness. In Europe for example, more and more people are turning away from the need for all kinds of possessions, and instead start sharing items. Sharing cars, sharing electrical machines for house or garden use, sharing houses,  … This makes not only the hearts of the people thrive (as a result of socialization), but also the environment, since less production means less pollution.

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The increasing welfare of Kazakhstan is clear also from the many ongoing construction works. We noticed that the city of Aktau is spreading and becoming bigger, with new family houses being built on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile we noticed uncompleted apartment blocks along the seaside in the city centre and holiday resorts outside the centre. Hopefully the local government uses space wisely, even though it is widely available in Kazakhstan. Because Kazakhstan will hopefully not make the same mistake as for example Belgium, where during the ’60s and ’70s the beautiful coastline was turned into an ugly wall of sky rising apartment blocks.

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What is a dog or a cat for the Kazakh people? As far as we noticed dogs and cats are seldom kept as pet animals. Cats and dogs seem to be tolerated by the locals, as long as they quietly keep to themselves, hiding during the day. Unfortunately, dogs and cats mostly seem to be in a bad condition. And as we heard, many dogs and cats are being caught and killed brutally. Where are the dog and cat shelters that take care of these innocent creatures that also have feelings and can truly love a human? Where are the locals that take an abandoned dog or cat and treat it as a family member? Dogs and cats are animals, different from the ‘human animal’, but they also deserve a decent life, care and companion…and in return they will give a human caretaker more than he ever asked for.

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To end on a beautiful note, we would like to add that we were enchanted by a moslim graveyard with the most beautiful tombs and shrines. Perfect pieces of art and expressions of respect.

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