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UNECE launches pilot project to strengthen safety of mining Tailings Management Facilities in Kazakhstan and beyond in Central Asia

Central Asian countries rely heavily on economic activities that produce, process or use hazardous substances in large quantities. Such activities encompass the extraction and processing of minerals and metals, such as gold, mercury and uranium. The waste that these activities create cannot be released into the environment but needs to be safely stored in so-called Tailings Management Facilities (TMFs). Improperly designed, handled or orphaned TMFs represent a threat that could trigger industrial accidents with transboundary effects and result in soil and water contamination. Of all Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has the fastest growing uranium production and has inherited a huge legacy of waste sites from the former Soviet Union, many of which require further safety measures.

In order to help Kazakhstan improve the safe management of TMFs and to enhance its institutional and subregional coordination on this matter, UNECE has launched a pilot project. While the work started earlier this year, the project was officially kicked off with an inception workshop held on 7-8 November 2018 in Astana. 

The expected outcomes of the project are:

  • Improved institutional and administrative structures and established/enhanced cooperation mechanisms;
  • Enhanced levels of TMF safety and the sound management of chemicals;
  • Increased awareness and level of implementation of international legal instruments, notably the UNECE Industrial Accidents and Water Conventions and the Minamata Convention on Mercury; and
  • Reduced risks of TMF failures for Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

The project, which is being implemented in 2018 and 2019, thanks to the financial support of Switzerland, will help Kazakhstan in the transition to a green economy. It will also support the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction for 2015-2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 6 and target 6.3: to improve water quality by 2030, by minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials.

The project’s inception workshop was co-organized by the government of Kazakhstan and UNECE, and was attended by representatives from several national authorities, international experts (including from Kyrgyzstan) and partner organizations in the region, such as CAREC and OSCE. 

The workshop provided an excellent platform for exchange and resulted in a number of important decisions. Among others, participants agreed to create an inter-institutional working group on tailings safety and water management. This working group should help improve cooperation and coordination to prevent industrial accidents at TMFs and the related accidental water pollution, including with transboundary consequences, in the future.

The workshop was opened by Mr. Makazhanov, Deputy Head of the Committee on Industrial Safety and Industrial Development of the Ministry of Investment and Development of Kazakhstan, who highlighted the importance of the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention as an effective tool for improving industrial safety in Kazakhstan and thanked Switzerland and UNECE for the support to the implementation of the pilot project. Mr. Urs Schmid, Ambassador of Switzerland to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, welcomed Kazakhstan's efforts to enhance the safety of mining operations, in particular TMFs, and supported Kazakhstan's efforts to conduct its 3rd Environmental Performance Review

Mr. Ardak Zebeshev, Chair of the Water Convention, serviced by UNECE, and Advisor to the Deputy Prime-Minister and to the Minister of Agriculture of the Republic of Kazakhstan, stressed the cooperation between the Water Convention and Industrial Accidents Convention on preventing transboundary water pollution through its Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents (JEG). He assured participants that Kazakhstan, as Chair of the Water Convention, will pay increased attention to the activities of the JEG and announced the intention of the Ministry of Agriculture to participate in the inter-institutional working group. UNECE further stressed the progress made to date in the project and highlighted the commitment by Kazakhstan in the project implementation.

At the workshop, Kazakhstan also presented its inventory of tailings facilities which was established by using a dedicated methodology. The TMF methodology – comprised of a tailings hazard index (which ranks TMFs according to their hazard risks), checklists for inspections and a measure catalogue – was developed based on the UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for Tailings Management Facilities. Participants of the workshop acknowledged the usefulness of the methodology and Kazakhstan expressed its intention to explore the inclusion of the methodology into their national regulations for use by competent authorities and operators as a tool to improve tailings management and safety.

The project is implemented by the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, in close cooperation with the national competent authorities under the Conventions and other relevant national and local authorities, industry, academia, civil society and communities. Representatives from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will also benefit by participating in specific activities, in particular in the subregional workshop in autumn 2019.