Baku Tackles Garbage Mountain

By Diana Isayeva

BAKU, Azerbaijan, March 16, 2010 (ENS) – Since the end of Soviet rule and the arrival of consumer culture, Azeris have had to get used to ditches full of rubbish and tree tops festooned with wind-borne plastic bags.

But officials have finally said enough is enough. In August 2008, President Ilham Aliyev ordered the creation of a new organization called Clean City to coordinate the battle against the unsightly mess.

A month later, work began on the construction of an incinerator in the village of Balakhany, which is within the Baku city limits, where one of the country’s largest rubbish dumps sprawls over the surrounding land. Oil pipes run the length of the dump. This is where Azerbaijan’s oil industry began in the 19th century.

Ecologists and local residents have long complained about the way the mountains of trash in Balakhany were burned, releasing clouds of evil-smelling smoke into the air, although many fear the new incinerator will be little better.

Oil pipes run through the rubbish dump at Balakhany, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, The Exile)

The smoke was just one of the impulses behind the creation of Clean City. At present, the slightest breeze carries thousands of plastic bags away from the trash heaps, as well as the terrible stench of rotting rubbish.

At the dump, homeless men and women comb through the piles, looking for scrap metal and bottles that they can exchange for a few coins in special collection points. One such man said he was gathering waste food for a local farm, which feeds it to livestock.

Azhdar Nasirov, 52, said many local people lived nearby because the land for farming and housing was cheap.

“Mainly young people buy these patches of land, since they don’t have the chance to get something better. These families have no other choice, and they just have to shut their eyes to the fact the air and land are so polluted,” he said.

But officials and ecologists are concerned by the spreading heaps of rubbish and Zakir Ibrahimov, head of Clean City, said he hoped the incinerator would enable them to process the waste.

“Clean City hopes in the future to improve the ecology by planting trees over this land,” he said.

Ecologists say the situation will be far more complex than that. Fikret Jafarov, director of the Sustainable Development Society, said the years of uncontrolled burning of rubbish at the dump have left the land heavily polluted with dioxins and other poisons.

Oil wells pump from beneath the dump at Balakhany. (Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, The Exile)

“People who live near the dump complain about their health and the bad ecology of this zone, which is the worst in the city. The level of harmful substances on the dump is too high, therefore redeveloping this area by spreading earth onto the rubbish is impossible for many years,” he said.

Every Baku resident produces 300-350 kilogrammes (660-770 pounds) of rubbish a year, an amount that has doubled in the last decade. Most of this rubbish is made up of packaging, of which 12 percent is paper or cardboard; seven to eight percent glass; and more than 25 percent plastic.

Jafarov said that an incineration plant, which uses charcoal filters and water, would be unable to burn such rubbish safely.

“If you do not change the charcoal in time, then you significantly increase the atmospheric pollution, and there is still the problem of storing and using this toxic water. Apart from this, there is still an open question about such dangerous products like batteries, accumulators, thermometers, all of which are risky,” he said.

“For example, batteries which end up in the environment, are able to break down and accumulate, and negatively affect human health. And the main thing is we are not sure what will happen to the waste products. The ecology ministry is raising these questions, but it is hard to say how they will be resolved.”

Officials have tried to calm such fears. Adil Zeynalov, head of the dangerous waste department in the ecology ministry, said the incineration plant will be built to meet all environmental standards.

“The smoke created by burning the waste will be sent through special filters, and the ash will be so harmless that it can be used for making roads. As a result, the volume of waste in the city will reduce tenfold by volume, and threefold by weight. This means a reduction in the amount of rubbish in dumps, and a reduction in the negative effect on the population,” he said.

“The plant will be able to process 500,000 tonnes of domestic waste a year. Apart from this, it can burn up to 10,000 tonnes of medical waste a year. And burning the waste will produce 231.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity for the city a year.”

{Diana Isayeva is a journalist from Novosti-Azerbaijan. This article originally appeared March 11, 2010 in Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

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