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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Ecological disasters: the human cost

Refugees Magazine, 1 May 1996

The human cost

In all, throughout the CIS countries, around 300 areas have been identified where environmental pollution is thought to cause acute dangers to human life. A total of some 4 million square kilometres have been badly affected by nuclear, industrial and agricultural installations and practices adopted during the Soviet era.

The nuclear-weapons programme involved 47 underground nuclear testing sites, and at least 20 major atomic waste disposal sites, several of which are already emitting radioactive materials into surrounding areas.

Dozens of towns, and several major cities, are extremely badly affected by industrial pollution.

Large areas of Central Asia have suffered irreparable damage from intensive farming and irrigation practices adopted in the 1960s, when Soviet central planners turned the region into a cotton monoculture in order to supply the clothing industry further north.

Originally, only the Chernobyl and Aral Sea regions were classified as 'very critical.' Recently, another 18 regions have been added to the list, including the Black Sea shore (nuclear power station effluent, oil sludge, nuclear waste); the area around Lake Baikal (industrial and agricultural pollution); areas of Moldova and parts of the North Caucasus (pesticides). A number of major industrial regions in northern Siberia are heavily polluted, including the sprawling mining and metallurgical complex at Norilsk (population 300,000), site of one of the largest of Stalin's labour camps and the world's biggest producer of copper, cobalt and nickel. In Norilsk, the snow is black: the most visible effect of the huge quantities of toxic industrial waste and atmospheric emissions.

Ecological migrants
Major displacements caused by ecological disasters
Russian Federation:75,000
Aral Sea
Russian Federation:n.d.
n.d. = no data available

In addition to the social strains created by population movements from ecological disaster areas, and the serious health risks, there is concern that in polluted regions where different ethnic groups live in close proximity, competition for increasingly limited clean water supplies could lead to conflict.


The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion took place on 26 April 1986. Ten years later, the full cost of the world's worst nuclear accident is still far from clear. The Ukrainian Government and G-7 countries are still discussing the cost of closing down the plant (parts of which are still functioning) and repairing the cracked concrete sarcophagus covering the destroyed reactor. As many as 9 million people living in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation may have been directly or indirectly affected. Incidence of thyroid cancer and some other diseases are on the increase. However, it will be many years before the full impact on health is known. In the meantime, millions of people live with the constant, debilitating fear that they, or their children, may be harbouring an invisible, slowly maturing agent that could, at any moment, manifest itself in the form of a fatal illness. Radionuclides are leaking from the sarcophagus into the water table and the River Dnieper, and via the Dnieper into the Black Sea.

At least 375,000 people had to leave their homes in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Many from the outlying affected areas, where the contamination levels have dropped, have since gone back. However, those who lived within a 30-kilometre radius of Chernobyl will never be able to return home.

The Aral Sea

The Aral Sea has lost as much as three-quarters of its volume as a result of a huge canal system built in the 1960s to divert water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers into the expanded cottonfields of Central Asia; 35,000 square kilometres of what was once sea is now highly saline and polluted land. The salinity of the remaining, rapidly diminishing sea has quadrupled. Fish stocks are virtually extinct in the sea itself and drastically reduced in the river deltas. Major fishing towns now find themselves as much as 100 kilometres from the coast.

The Aral Sea and much of the surrounding area are also affected by chronic pollution caused by the cotton-crop fertilizers, pesticides and industrial waste which seep into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. The destructive salts and toxic chemicals extend far beyond the original sea shore, as the result of a dramatic rise in the water table caused by the sieve-like irrigation canals, and of severe windstorms that each year sweep millions of tonnes of salt-dust from the dried-up lake bed across the rest of Central Asia. Large swathes of once-productive farmland lie fallow.

An estimated 2.5 million to 3 million people live in the worst affected areas of Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Major health problems have been reported, including a steep increase in infant mortality. The total number displaced in all three affected countries is not known, but probably exceeds 100,000. So far, in Kazakstan alone, at least 42,000 people have moved from the Aral Sea either further inside Kazakstan or to other CIS countries. Continued deterioration of the social, economic and environmental conditions in this ethnically complex region seems likely to force further internal and external migration.


The Semipalatinsk region in northern Kazakstan hosted one of the Soviet Union's largest nuclear missile testing-sites. Some of the tests were carried out above ground. Close to 200,000 people are believed to have been directly exposed to radiation before testing was halted in 1963. More than 45,000 people have already moved from the Semipalatinsk region to safer areas of Kazakstan since independence. Another 116,000 people have left for other CIS countries. The neighbouring Altaiskii region in the Russian Federation has also been badly affected.




UNHCR country pages


How UNHCR and partners seek to minimize the environmental impact of refugee operations.

Displacement in Georgia

Tens of thousands of civilians are living in precarious conditions, having been driven from their homes by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 12, the first UNHCR-chartered plane carrying emergency aid arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the first UN assistance to arrive in the country since fighting broke out the previous week. The airlift brought in 34 tonnes of tents, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Items were then loaded onto trucks at the Tbilisi airport for transport and distribution.

A second UNHCR flight landed in Tbilisi on August 14, with a third one expected to arrive the following day. In addition, two UNHCR aid flights are scheduled to leave for Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation the following week with mattresses, water tanks and other supplies for displaced South Ossetians.

Working with local partners, UNHCR is now providing assistance to the most vulnerable and needy. These include many young children and family members separated from one another. The situation is evolving rapidly and the refugee agency is monitoring the needs of the newly displaced population, which numbered some 115,000 on August 14.

Posted on 15 August 2008

Displacement in Georgia

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

When fighting broke out between government troops and rebel forces in Chechnya in 1999, over 200,000 people fled the republic, most of them to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Today, tens of thousands of Chechens remain displaced in Ingushetia, unwilling to go home because of continuing security concerns.

As of early December 2003, some 62,000 displaced Chechens were living in temporary settlements or in private accommodation. Those living in settlements face constant threats of eviction, often by owners who wish to use their buildings again.

Another 7,900 displaced Chechens live in tents in three remaining camps – Satsita, Sputnik, and Bart.

The authorities have repeatedly called for the closure of tent camps and the return of the displaced people to Chechnya. Three camps have been closed in the past year – Iman camp at Aki Yurt, "Bella" or B camp, and "Alina" or A camp. Chechens from the latter two camps who did not wish to go home were allowed to move to Satsita camp or other existing temporary settlements in Ingushetia.

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

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