Postcard from Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic

Working as an international ESIA and CSR consultant has its perks. This includes visiting fascinating people and places off the beaten track. But finding problems, such as lack of access to safe drinking water, remains depressing. (And don't mention jet-lag...)


As part of one of my current project assignment involving Centerra Gold’s high-altitude Kumtor mine (cofinanced by the EBRD, see also Kyrgyz Prime Minister Babanov Visited Kumtor Mine – and me too!), I had a chance to visit the town of Naryn (or Narin), which is the capital of the namesake Oblast (province) in Kyrgyzstan.


Naryn is described as the poorest region in a country which is now among the poorest of the former Soviet states. This means exactly what it says: not good. Other perks include that Naryn is also the coldest city of Kyrgyzstan. To make things worse, our guidebook noted that Naryn, which was apparently established around a former Soviet-era garrison, is a place people don’t visit by choice.


The latter may be more to do with the challenge of getting there (and back). Driving many hours through 2-lane highways where, at times, the surface area of potholes far exceeds that of the paved parts of the road does not elevate Naryn to a top tourist destination. Good news: funding through Chinese grants (I believe), Chinese contractors are repaving the roads to/though Naryn to improve trading routes with nearby China.


Undeterred visitors will find breathtaking mountainous scenery dotted by sheep, horses and yurts. Shortly before entering Naryn city, they will pass an obelisk of two snow leopards (not sure how many are left in the Naryn region: Rangers, poachers decimate Snow Leopards, but Kumtor Mine gets NGOs’ attention ) and drive through a breathtaking gorge before passing a river and being greeted by a much less impressive gas station.  


At this point, observant visitors will notice the presence of occasional water distribution points along the main streets (and we sampled one for lab analysis to get a feel for water quality). These are connected to pressurized distribution mains and seem to be the main access point to piped water for nearby residents. Studies conducted by UNICEF in 2011 note that, in the Naryn Oblast (province), 70 per cent of the schools studied never had sewage or water supply systems. (And I read ‘sewage’ to mean a variation of ‘holes in the ground’ with or without drainage to the next surface water body). No wonder that acute intestinal infections are so prevalent. And the EC-funed development of the Naryn Environmental (Ecological) Action Plan also identifies many of the real issues of concern ranging from pollution from coal mining to inadequate waste management (see report posted here: BIOM Naryn EMP 2011 - ПЛАН ЭКОЛОГИЧЕСКОГО УПРАВЛЕНИЯ НАРЫНСКОЙ ОБЛАСТИ).


Given these obvious problems, it remains interesting to note a somewhat myopic focus on alleged pollution in Naryn from the Kumtor mine (located some 220 km further upstream) instead of tackling the real and known problems at hand and - literary - next door: limited access to safe drinking water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and ineffective waste and sewage treatment all of which is adversely affecting the health of the population.

Perhaps some of UNICEF’s low-cost approaches (see UNICEF WASH_2011 proposal for <$400k) could be transferred and applied in Naryn to create some visible water quality and health improvements.


Have you been to Naryn and would like to share your thoughts? Have you applied or benefited from UNICEF’s solutions to improve  access to safe water and sanitation in schools? I would welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Your may also be interested in exploring these updates and a postcard from Botswana:

Kyrgyz government denies contamination of Naryn River due to Kumtor activities

Prizma’s Independent Assessment of Parliamentary Commission Report on Kumtor Gold Published

Working out of Zebra Office, Botswana