More than 100 central Asian country delegates and other international representatives met in Geneva amid warnings some 800 million tonnes of toxic uranium waste deposits in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Helen Clark, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administrator and former New Zealand prime minister, told the forum: “As most of the uranium tailing sites are located in densely populated and natural-disaster prone areas of Central Asia’s largest river basins, they represent a major potential risk to the region’s water supply and the health of millions of people.

“Many more are likely to suffer if uranium contamination moves downstream to other areas.”

Much of the waste Uranium tailing deposits left over from mining during the Cold War for Soviet weapons production sits in ponds held back by unstable dams and near international rivers and watersheds.

UNDP resident representative and UN coordinator Neal Walker warned the dumps, similar to coal mine slag heaps, were not well designed and are vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes.

But overstrained budgets and lack of capacity have prevented the affected countries from dealing with the problem.

Igor Chudinov, Kyrgyz Republic prime minister, said: “The potential harm from uranium tailings in our countries is a serious and dangerous threat that needs urgent attention. We need to develop security for our people and support their human development.”

Representatives of the four countries signed a declaration at the forum last month (June 29) to work together to solve the problem of radioactive and toxic waste in the region, which was the biggest supplier of uranium to the former Soviet Union.

They agreed to strengthen regulatory frameworks, promote community development and encourage public-private investment.

Miroslav Jenca, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Central Asia, said: “We now have real momentum towards a multilateral approach to dealing with the problem.”

David Gibbs

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie