Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seaside of Death: The perils of progress in Sumgayit, Azerbaijan

by Joe
To see the complete set of photographs accompanying this post,

Are there really degrees of dirty? I mean, once something is dirty, can it be “really” dirty? Well, the global consulting firm Mercer's seems to think so. The company releases an annual report which countless major corporations and even the U.N. use as a bible to decide where to set up shop and how much to pay the poor employees that are sent there. While the majority of celebrated pomp focuses around the “
Most expensive city” report, it is not the only fruit of their labour. Their quality of living surveys have grown to the point that they can make or break cities. But what happens to the cities that are already broken?

One of the contributing factors in the ordainment of the best city award is the quality of health and sanitation services:

“Scores are based on the quality and availability of hospital and medical supplies and levels of air pollution and infectious diseases. The efficiency of waste removal and sewage systems, water potability and the presence of harmful animals and insects are also taken into account.”

One would assume that the Mercer's title of dirtiest and unhealthiest city would have to go to somewhere in China or India. But oh no!! The answer is rather surprising.

At the turn of the last century, one city in particular got a leg up on the oil race. Baku, the capital of present day Azerbaijan, was sitting on a gold mine. Well, a “black gold” mine anyway. With the onset of the infectious Bolshevik revolution, the newly crowned commie Baku was pumping out the old Texas tea faster than a white guy filling his car at a Compton gas station. There was actually a time where little Baku was supplying over 70% of all the world's oil needs. It doesn't take a genius to guess what an environmental toll this took on the city and the Absheron peninsula it calls home. Even with today's so-called safety standards, major spills and general filth occur with distressing frequency. So imagine the case 100+ years ago in Soviet Azerbaijan. Besides seemingly irreversible damage to the Caspian Sea, and the superficial ground level decimation of the top soil, the area’s entire watershed was subjugated to more abuse then is handed out at a US army prison. The effects, as noted in the Mercer's report, are still felt to this day, with disproportionately high rates of disease from pollution. One might think the Soviet bigwigs would sit back smoking a big Cuban content in all the destruction it caused. But the worst was yet to come.

During the industrial push of the USSR, Baku (more accurately its satellite suburb of Sumgayit) was blessed with over 40 of the empire’s biggest factories. Industrial and agricultural chemicals, petro-chemicals and a variety of other nasties were produced and refined in the smog churning cauldrons. As the stories go, happy little commuters would leave home in their work-best whites, only to show up at work in yellows, their clothes having been stained by the particulate in the air. But the locals didn't mind. As a matter of fact, people wanted to work there. There was a time factory workers were making more than doctors. Unbeknownst to them, this death money would be given back to the doctors in the form of medical bills. Sumgayit had one of the highest morbidity rates during the Soviet Era and the legacy of illness and death persist. A study jointly conducted by the UNDP, WHO, Azerbaijan Republic Ministry of Health and the University of Alberta demonstrated that “residents of Sumgayit experience intensely high levels of both cancer morbidity and mortality. Cancer rates in Sumgayit are 22-51% higher than average incidence rates in the rest of Azerbaijan. Mortality rates from cancer are 8% higher. Evidence suggests that lower reported cancer rates are flawed as a result of underreporting.”

If that wasn't depressing enough, according to the World Bank, Azerbaijan has an infant mortality rate twice as high as neighbouring Georgia and 3X higher than that of Armenia. As a matter of fact, Azerbaijan ranks up with places like Afghanistan and Iraq as having the highest infant mortality rates outside of Africa. Sumgayit has a constant reminder of this. At the edge of the city limits, a cemetery devoted strictly for children sits as a morbid landmark of the perils of progress.

Most of the factories have since been shut down, forming their own little graveyard. But the toxic onslaught is far from over. Countless heavy metals and other carcinogens continue to seep from the very foundations of the Soviet relics. The ground is essentially unable to bear any fruit, and that's not even mentioning the continued rate of premature death of children. Even with all these reports, even with the blatant in-your-face evidence of the death that surrounds them, locals still go fishing off the shore. Even using a rotting old chemical ship as their make-shift pier. If that wasn't enough, the beach at Sumgayit still attracts weekend sunseekers and... you guessed it... they still bathe in the toxic sludge.

The government of Azerbaijan has obtained international support for the economic and environmental rehabilitation of the city from several United Nations organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The UNDP helped to create the Sumgayit Centre for Environmental Rehabilitation (SCER) to research and prioritize the environmental problems and propose programs to address them. A number of environmental epidemiology courses were held in Baku to strengthen the capacity of local experts.

In 2003, the World Bank launched a US $2.7 million project for the cleanup of a chlorine producing plant where 1,566 tons of mercury were spilled, including the construction of a secure landfill. Other international projects funded by UK and Japan have also been implemented.

Sadly, with Azerbaijan ranking near the top of the
corruption index, it is safe to assume that this money intended to save the lives of the innocent is instead padding the pockets of overseers. Yet the government continues to mislead. In an effort to reverse mass urbanization, and the inevitable migration of workers seeking employment in the capital, the government has set programmes trying to encourage families to move to Sumgayit. There have even been talks of linking a high speed railway from Baku's metro system all the way to the Sumgayit seashore. Perhaps it's merely a case of survival of the fittest. But if the global experts can be believed, the health (and indeed ultimate survival) of the people in Sumgayit seems highly unlikely.

For more detailed information on how to get to Sumgayit, check out Joe's blog,
Joe's Trippin'.

To see the complete set of photographs accompanying this post,

1 comment:

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