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The dead zone Sumgait was once one of the most important industrial centres in the USSR. But the collapse of the Soviet system has revealed a frightening environmental legacy. Richard Thompson reports

Entering Sumgait's industrial zone is like walking on to a Mad Max set. A potholed dual carriageway carries you past mile upon mile of decrepit factory buildings. The road is flanked by rusting, leaking pipes winding through piles of twisted metal and broken concrete. Most striking of all, it is completely still. For an industrial city of 350,000 people it is eerie. The silence is evidence of how far the collapse of the Soviet economy has hit Azerbaijan.

But the worst legacy of all is pollution. Sumgait is paying a heavy price for 50 years of accelerated industrialisation during which production was given higher priority than the human and ecological impact.

The city's environment became heavily contaminated with extremely toxic industrial waste. People experienced all kinds of horrific health problems. According to the CIA's World Factbook website, Sumgait is 'the most ecologically devastated area in the world'.

The Azerbaijan government has put the environment at the top of its agenda. But having no money to make the improvements, it needs help. To attract western investment and civil engineering expertise, President Heydar Aliyev has established Sumgait as a special economic zone where companies are exempt from the country's onerous tax system.

Development of the small coastal village of Sumgait began in 1933 when the Soviet government decided to site the industrial infrastructure for Azer- baijan's oil industry there.

The first factory built was an aluminium smelter in 1939. Over the next 50 years Sumgait's population rose from 6,000 to 350,000. The 1950s saw the city's first split from oil production with the development of phosphate fertiliser and other chemical factories.

Toxic chemicals including DDT, hexachlorine and caustic soda were produced or were the byproducts of many of the factories. Sumgait's chemical plants were even used to produce chemical weapons. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Sumgait had annual production levels equal to pounds 1.2bn.

With the break up of the Soviet system, Sumgait's factories lost their market place. Added to that they suddenly had to pay for raw materials.

Unable to produce goods to Western standards and unable to modernise because of lack of money, the factories had to wind down their operations. Today they operate at around 10% capacity.

Throughout Sumgait's development, the emphasis was on production. Untreated waste was dumped on to land, sea and air. 'At its peak an estimated 70,000t to120,000t of toxic waste was released into the atmosphere each year,' says United Nations development project manager Arif Islamzadeh.

Less than a third of the city's industrial sewage passed through the city's sewage treatment works. Most was dumped into the Caspian unprocessed. 'The Caspian shoreline was turned into a biological 'dead zone' extending 20km to 25km into the fishing regions,' explains Islamzadeh. 'Factories annually generated over 300,000t of solid waste. Almost half was dumped as domestic waste or left lying around factory yards.'

The pollution has had terrible consequences for Sumgait's population. Health problems for workers include cancers, heart and bone defects and deficiency in the immune system. Sumgait also suffers from a high incidence of birth defects. 'Some 27 out of every 1,000 babies die before they reach one year old,' says Islamzadeh. In Britain the figure is six.

Since 1995 an internationally funded clean-up operation has been under way. As well as the UN programme, the European Union, World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction & Development are all involved.

The World Bank recently agreed a pounds 5M credit to build a landfill project near Sumgait, to remove mercury-contaminated ground around an old caustic soda factory. The project report to back the loan application was put together by Halcrow and the UN Industrial Development Organisation.

The loan forms part of a pounds 25M World Bank aid programme for environmental projects. Azerbaijan's state committee on ecology is currently reviewing tender submissions for the project and expects to announce the winner soon.

The Azeris are also looking at cleaning up heavy metal and dioxin pollution and several schemes to reconstruct and clean facilities.

UNIDO is now drafting a city plan for Sumgait to restructure the entire chemical sector. 'The solution lies in converting the factories to other technologies such as manufacturing and electronics,' says Islamzadeh.

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