Before giving the go-ahead for any large-scale project, it is natural that the government of a country would consider its potential impact on the environment as well as on its population. But what happens when the project in question could affect the environment of a neighbouring country?
This was the case recently when the Andash Mining Company sought a licence in Kyrgyzstan to mine gold and copper close to the border with Kazakhstan, an activity which, among other implications, could potentially pollute rivers flowing into Kazakhstan. The project became a pilot in an OSCE-supported initiative to support the Espoo Convention - a UN treaty set up to deal with transboundary environmental issues of this kind.
Implementing the Espoo Convention
At the heart of the Espoo Convention (in full, the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context), which is administered by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, is the obligation for parties to conduct an assessment of any activity that might have a significant cross-border environmental impact. This helps the establishment of contacts and makes it easier to pre-empt and resolve possible conflicting views between neighbouring countries.
"Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are both parties to the Convention," explains Goran Svilanovic, the OSCE's Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities. "In this project we were able to help improve the co-operation - not only between the two countries but also between their different institutions, and bring the local population and interest groups into the process."
This is achieved through the joint discussion of possible problems that may arise from the activity.
Project partners included Kyrgyzstan's State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry, Kazakhstan's Ministry of Environmental Protection, the NGO Independent Environmental Expertise in Kyrgyzstan, the investor, Andash Mining Company and the Secretariat of the Espoo Convention. The project is part of the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, which pools the resources of the OSCE, UNEP, UNDP, UNECE, NATO, and the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC).
Particular attention was given to the participation of the public. The OSCE Centre in Astana helped organize public hearings so that the local population were aware of the planned activities and its possible impact on the territory of Kazakhstan. Hearings in Kyrgyzstan were organized by the Andash Mining Company, with the company covering part of the costs, in accordance with the Espoo Convention.
"The public hearings allowed the concerns of the community to be acknowledged and addressed early on in the process," says Rakyia Kalygulova, a senior specialist with Kyrgyzstan's Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry. "This will contribute to the long-term public acceptance of the mining project."
During the environment impact assessment (EIA), both countries were able to confirm gaps as well as strengths in their procedures, demonstrating the practical application of EIA procedures in a transboundary context. The project enabled the Guidelines for conducting an EIA in a transboundary context in Central Asia, which were developed in 2005 with the help of the OSCE, to be tested in practice. The Guidelines were subsequently updated based on lessons learned.
Based on the experience of the pilot project, two major legal acts - instructions on the conduct of environment impact assessments and on the expertise on project materials - were amended in Kyrgyzstan to clarify procedures and include the participation of the public.
The collaboration between the OSCE, its field presences and the Espoo Convention Secretariat ensured the appropriate technical, political and practical implementation of the project. Information-sharing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan improved considerably, largely because of the informal contacts made during the project and the possibility of using Russian as a common language.
The project also strengthened the view among stakeholders that the Espoo Convention is an important instrument for promoting co-operation.
"The implementation of the Espoo Convention is important for improving environmental co-operation in the Central Asia region and it can be applied to many different transboundary activities," said Ambassador Andrew Tesoriere, Head of the OSCE Centre in Bishkek.
The project results were presented to the Interstate Sustainable Development Committee, and two other Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have expressed their interest in the Espoo Convention as well as in similar types of projects.