In just two decades as an independent country, Kazakhstan has made great strides, but waste management is a problem area and a major brake on economic growth, explains Usen Suleimen, Ambassador-at-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan…
Strong growth has pushed us into the world’s top 50 economies and seen the incomes and living standards of our citizens improve dramatically. Despite these successes, progress remains uneven. One important area where we continue to lag behind other nations is on waste management and recycling. It is a failure which threatens to hold our country back.
The comparison with more developed economies is stark. From a Central Asian perspective, European concerns regarding low recycling levels seem absurd. In Kazakhstan, only one per cent of waste is reprocessed and it is a figure which is scarcely rising.
Our country, in fact, has practically no facilities for processing recyclable material. Industrial waste – much of it toxic - is simply dumped or buried. The amount of waste is now equivalent to 1,000 tonnes for every one of our 17 million citizens.
Kazakhstan is a very large country – the ninth biggest in the world. By European standards, there is no shortage of space. There is, however, a growing recognition within government that we can’t continue along this destructive path.
The dumping of waste, often without even basic safety checks, is polluting large areas of our land and our water supplies. As a country which continues to suffer terribly from the impact of Soviet nuclear tests, Kazakhstan needs no reminding of the health dangers related to toxic pollution.
There is also a realisation that our waste mismanagement is a major brake on our economic growth. The inefficient use of valuable resources has encouraged us to use up new resources at an unnecessary and unsustainable rate. Our oil industry, for example, continues to burn off huge amounts of gas as waste. This wasteful extravagance across our industrial sector discourages companies from modernising out-dated and inefficient production methods.
We can see the difference, for example, when comparing the way the uranium industry operates in the United States and Kazakhstan – the world’s biggest producer. While the American industry is supported by advanced safety procedures, the Kazakhstan uranium industry is ill-equipped and has left sulphuric acid just below the surface in large areas in the south of our country.
Lessons to learn
So what can Kazakhstan learn from countries who are further along in overcoming these challenges? How can we create the conditions which encourage our industries to use resources more efficiently?
Firstly, effective regulation is important in even the most liberal market economies. This is perhaps a surprising lesson for a country which struggled to escape Soviet bureaucracy and over-management. Environmental standards need to be introduced, updated and enforced with tough penalties for those who break them.
It is also clear that these regulations need to be enforced and monitored at a national level. At present, regional authorities oversee the operations of extractive industries in Kazakhstan. They can lack the commitment or authority to protect the environment or the citizens.
Secondly, we have to make much more use of the polluter pays principle to drive changes of behaviour. There is currently no incentive for industries to change if society, and not the extractive companies, has to meet all clean-up costs. At the moment, the most economical way for too many of our companies to dispose of waste, for example, is to dump or burn it.
We also have to ensure that regulations are comprehensive, encompassing all industrial companies. At the moment, those who do accept their civil responsibility too often face higher costs than their competitors. Only when this is changed will market forces drive the changes we want to see.
This must go beyond fines for breaches of standards and include the imposition of new environmental taxes and charges, such as we have seen with the use of carbon.
Thirdly, money raised in this way must be used, in part, to support innovation. Many Western countries have used grants to support the fledgling recycling industries. Investment to modernise production and waste management methods should bring tax benefits. We need to study and adapt, using tax measures as well as regulation to stimulate the re-use of resources.
All of these steps need serious consideration in Kazakhstan. Indeed, many of them are already being discussed.
Our country’s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna has made the improved use of energy and resources and better waste management a priority. The fund is supporting a key project on the management of resources and waste minimization in preparation for EXPO-2017 in Astana, which has the theme ‘Future Energy’.
We have a great deal more to do. But there is no shortage of commitment to get this right.
Despite having abundant fossil fuels, we have set ourselves an ambitious target of generating half of our energy from renewable resources by 2050. There is cross-government support to look at imaginative ways of encouraging better waste management and improved recycling.
Kazakhstan can also take comfort from the fact that one of the reasons for our progress over the last two decades has been our openness to ideas. From the beginning, we have actively sought outside expertise and partners. We recognise that in this area, too, we won’t be able to meet our ambitions on our own. Consider this an invitation to come to Kazakhstan.
Usen Suleimen, PhD, Ambassador-at-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan
Edil Khozeuly, PhD (Economics)
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