Aral Residents Oppose Resettlement Plan

Inhabitants of ecological disaster zone in Kazakstan condemn government relocation plan.

Aral Residents Oppose Resettlement Plan

Inhabitants of ecological disaster zone in Kazakstan condemn government relocation plan.

Residents of the Aral region, which has been classified as an ecological disaster zone, are up in arms over government plans for their resettlement.

They and their supporters in parliament accuse the government of turning the financial screws on local residents to force them to move out.

Since 1999, the authorities have slashed welfare payments to the residents of the region. A new bill last month renewed the policy, axing benefits such as free medicine and travel passes and utility bill subsidies.

The reduction of support for the impoverished area forms part of a government drive to get residents to agree to move. The authorities have concluded that money spent on redeveloping the Aral region is money wasted and that the inhabitants need to be resettled instead.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev last summer announced that he favoured removing residents from isolated villages to better off urban centres in the Aral region. "Inhabitants of small and abandoned settlements need to be moved to larger ones, to places where life is better and where there are schools and hospitals," he said.

Supporters of the government's plan say maintaining benefits to disaster zones only fuels a culture of dependency. Guljana Karagusova, Kazak labour and welfare minister, told deputies in parliament that benefits "glue" local people to their impoverished region when it would make more sense to start resettling them.

The ecology of the Aral region has deteriorated drastically in recent years.

The Aral Sea has shrunk significantly because the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers that feed into it were overused during Soviet times. Meanwhile, toxic waste dumped by cotton industries has further reduced the availability of fresh water for the region's inhabitants and exposed them to greater health risks. The incidence of kidney and liver disease has been increasing amongst these people, as has the infant mortality rate.

However well-intentioned the curb on benefits, many parliamentarians have reacted with anger to the announcement that such radical measures are to be taken in the hard-hit region.

Deputies from several parliamentary committees spoke out against the plans. They want the suspension of benefits to be postponed until 2005, by which time a properly planned programme for resettling people can be worked out.

Residents of the Aral region are equally sceptical about the initiative to have them moved. Most do not dispute that their homes lie in a disaster zone, which offers few job opportunities.

"Most of our people have no work and only survive on benefits," said a local teacher, Agaisha Kairbaeva. "In our family we make most of our money from selling pies at the train station."

But locals say the government's solutions are both drastic and unworkable.

"You can't solve all the problems by resettling everyone," said Said Masatov, from Kambash village, near Aralsk. "It's still not clear how this will be funded."

Arip Erepova, a student from Aralsk, said, "All the people who could afford to leave have already done so - those who can't will continue to live here in poverty, whatever decision the officials take."

Many fear no provision will be made for them if they were to relocate. "We don't want to move because we don't believe the state will give us with housing," said Aikyp Berentaev, from Kambash.

Kazak commentators say the government has only a weak grasp on ecological policy and has yet to come up with a workable strategy for dealing with impoverished rural areas. "Survive as best you can" is how most political scientists sum up the government's stance on the problems affecting remote regions.

Attempts by the deprived areas themselves to pool both resources and ideas have come to nothing. "An association of depressed towns was organised a few years ago but it came to nothing," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, from the newspaper Kazakstanskaya Pravda.

Sholpan Ibysheva is an independent journalist in Kazakstan.

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