Kazakhstan to strengthen mine tailings safety and prevent water pollution, with UNECE support

Source(s)
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
Mining tailing ponds
Galore777/Shutterstock

11 February marks the first meeting of the Working Group on Tailings Safety and the Prevention of Accidental Water Pollution (IIWG) in Kazakhstan – the first comprehensive dialogue on these issues between all relevant stakeholders and national authorities in the country. 

After being officially established in January 2022, the IIWG brought together representatives of different national authorities, operators, international organizations, NGOs, academia and other interested specialists to enhance tailings safety in Kazakhstan and beyond Central Asia. The national authorities present comprised the representatives dealing with emergency situations, industrial safety, environment and natural resources, environmental regulation and control, water resources and foreign affairs. It also saw the active participation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), operators, academia and international organizations and their interest in tailings management safety in Kazakhstan.  

“The IIWG is an important step towards strengthening the safety of mine tailings facilities, population well-being and environmental protection in a national and transboundary setting”, highlighted Mr. Eric Kurumbaev, Head of the Department of State Supervision in the Mining and Metallurgical Industry of the Committee of Industrial Safety of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Kazakhstan and the Chair of the meeting. 

The work of the Group is an important development for Kazakhstan in achieving better cooperation and collaboration among industrial safety, water and other experts in Kazakhstan, including with operators, academia, and NGOs to prevent accidental water pollution from mine tailings and their transboundary effects. It provides a national platform for discussion as well as the exchange of experience and good practices to prevent accidental water pollution from mine tailings facilities. It is foreseen that the Working Group will meet on a needs-driven basis at least twice a year. The next meeting is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2022. 

“The Inter-institutional Working Group on Tailing Safety and Water Management (IIWG) will be a powerful tool to enhance industrial safety and prevent water pollution by promoting exchanges and advancing the necessary legal and policy reforms. It will therefore benefit the safety and health of populations and protect the environment, not only in Kazakhstan but also in its neighbouring countries”, highlighted Ms. Francesca Bernardini, Chief of Transboundary Cooperation Section, UNECE Environment Division.  

In recent years Kazakhstan has well advanced its work on strengthening mine tailings safety. As part of the UNECE Pilot project to strengthen the safety of mining operations, in particular tailings management facilities (TMFs), in Kazakhstan and beyond in Central Asia (2017-2019), an inventory and map of 121 tailings management facilities were prepared, and onsite training at a TMF in Kokshetau was carried out to apply the UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for Tailings Management Facilities and a related Checklist Methodology on the ground. Under the ongoing UNECE Project on supporting countries of Central Asia in strengthening mine tailings safety, Kazakhstan established this Inter-institutional Working Group and developed action plans to strengthen tailings safety and implement the recommendations on the Industrial Accidents Convention, as contained in its latest Environmental Performance Review.  

While Kazakhstan is making good progress, there is still a further need to continue this work to prevent and prepare countries to respond to tailings accidents. The proper handling of mine tailings facilities and prevention of accidental water pollution at a subregional level are highly relevant questions for Kazakhstan. The country is prone to so-called Natech accidents, i.e. technological accidents triggered by natural hazards (such as floods, landslides or earthquakes), as are also other Central Asian countries. This risk for Natech accidents is aggravated by changing weather patterns and more extreme weather events due to climate change. The disastrous consequences of such accidents were demonstrated during mass-floodings in Turkestan Province in 2020, which were caused by accidental damage of the dam and outburst of the Sardoba Water Reservoir in Uzbekistan and then later by extreme rainfalls on the territory of Turkestan Province itself. The IIWG can provide a forum for Kazakhstan to exchange lessons learned from Natech accidents or near-misses at tailings facilities and agree on steps to improve the prevention of such accidents. 

This initiative is very timely as the projected increase of the global demand for minerals and metals will also equate to an increase in the number of mine tailings facilities – a development which calls for increased awareness and proactive measures to strengthen the safe management of mine tailings in Kazakhstan, covering both new and existing tailings facilities. Given the cross-cutting nature of this issue, the continued engagement of all relevant stakeholders – throughout the IIWG, including different ministries, institutions or committees, NGOs, academia, business, operators and experts, is required to effectively manage tailings safety and prevent water pollution. 

The IIWG committed today to continue strengthening implementation of the Industrial Accidents Convention and to reducing risks associated with TMFs failures and accidental water pollution. Among others, the IIWG agreed to undertake several actions until the next meeting, for example, updating Kazakhstan’s action plans under the Convention, reviewing and maintaining its TMFs inventory and map, and the identification of possible topics for a study.  

“Today’s meeting of the Working Group saw many great suggestions on how to increase the level of industrial safety and how to prevent accidental water pollution in Kazakhstan. I hope all relevant stakeholders will take further steps, so as to improve tailings safety in Kazakhstan and a transboundary context”, concluded Mr. Eric Kurumbaev.  

The establishment of the IIWG stemmed from the needs expressed by Kazakhstan first during the inception workshop (Astana, 7-8 November 2018) under the UNECE Pilot Project to strengthen the safety of mining operations. It was reconfirmed at the Project’s final subregional workshop (Almaty, 20-21 November 2019) and, following the development of terms of reference for the Inter-institutional Working Group, it was formally established on 21 January 2022 by the decree of the Minister of Emergency Situations. 

Further information about the inaugural meeting, organized with the support of the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, is available at: https://unece.org/info/Environmental-Policy/Industrial-Accidents/events/364553 

Kazakhstan has been a Party to the Convention since 2001 and is a beneficiary of its Assistance and Cooperation Programme, as such, it has committed itself to improve industrial safety by implementing safety measures at hazardous facilities and to strengthen implementation of the Convention. For instance, it is a beneficiary of the National Policy Dialogue for Industrial Safety in Central Asia launched in August 2020, which promotes environmental governance, disaster resilience and industrial safety and at the same time act as a forum for Central Asian countries to advance in policy reforms. In addition, Kazakhstan is also a Party to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes since 2001. Under both Conventions’ Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents (JEG), Kazakhstan is working actively for many years on preventing accidental water pollution and industrial safety. 

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