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

The USSR left behind numerous heavily contaminated or polluted industrial, agricultural and nuclear sites. The three worst hit areas - Chernobyl, the Aral Sea and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site - have already produced more than 700,000 ecological migrants, as well as very serious health concerns for those who remain.

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.