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​Chronicles of an unofficial catastrophe

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The first public reports of the mass death of fish in Ural River in Atyrau were registered on the 2nd of December, last year. Today, the 7th March, hundreds of thousands of fish carcasses are almost evenly distributed in the thickness of the river ice. These fish, swollen from corpse gas, floated to the surface and were icebound. Underwater surveys prove that more than one thousand tons have decomposed on the bottom, not visible to the eye. The worst thing is that they continue to die. But Atyrau officials believe there is no reason for concern.

Dead fish waist high

According to the journalists’ code of ethics, the task of the journalist is to: search, process and transmit the information. The less emotional the journalist is in his work, in the materials he presents, the more he is valued. These rules - for me, I have always endeavoured to adopt a neutral, slightly detached position in the text. But not this time. This time I have questions, many questions.

The shocking news about the death of the fish overtook me on a long-awaited vacation: six thousand kilometres from my home, soft sunlight spreads through ancient pavements, timeless architectural beauty all around me, expensive and beautifully dressed people carelessly chatter over a tiny cup of coffee, laugh - and my messenger is full of these videos revealing masses of dead fish. I instinctively cover my mouth with my palm so as not to scream. And the pulsating in my head - the Ural end, and therefore the city, grab your loved ones and run away ... I am sure that in those days such thoughts overwhelmed many. The message continued with the routine of work, care, the New Year. Are we expected to adapt; and the cherry on the cake - maybe it will resolve itself?  It has not been resolved.

During these few days, before the ice cleared, we conducted surface and underwater surveys from the central bridge and down - Selstroy, Balykshi, MMS, Jumusker, Erkinkala, Kurilkino, Overgrown Dam, Peshnoy and Adovot. A Ural-father, Akzhayik, describes seeing before him - a fish cemetery, a burial ground. Everywhere rot, death, inevitability. Under the water, tons of almost rotted, still decaying and exhausted or dying fish: now only small species are moving, only crucians, bream, asp, vobla, bullheads, sabrefish, remain.  Perch-bershata ... all the fry are dead, even the hardy carp has surrendered. The fishermen say that in January they reeled in the carcass of an 80-kilogram catfish ... In January, they say, it was scary - the height of the layer of dead fish was waist-high.

It is impossible to calculate the scale of the catastrophe, to find a way to count the cost. Neither the true reasons, nor the size of the damage caused to nature, nor the possible consequences for human health have been disclosed. And they are inevitable. Just as everything in nature is so arranged that when one of its links dies, its neighbours inevitably suffer. A bird pecks at the thawed remains, the bird is taken away by stray animals ...

Who knows what they carry in their stomachs? If they are still dying from this water, what is happening to us now? What possible damage does the consumption of this water do to us right now? Water in which something may still be present, that has killed hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions of fish? Or what cumulative effect can this water have on Atyrau residents, in the future, who were taken hostage by their own Urals? The sun is hot, the water warms up very quickly and hastens the decomposition process, will we continue to drink this water with cadaver masses? And what will happen to the sea when it brings all this bio-waste, what is happening now in the mouth - the golden cradle of the entire local fauna? Recently, officials expressed hope for a flood - and negotiations were held with the Iriklinsky Reservoir management? Will they give us a little more water than in previous years, or, as usual, spit on their neighbours below? And in the end why is an emergency not declared, because our fish continue to die, which means also our river, our sacred river. Is imaginary stability worth it? Imaginary, because these questions are swarming not only in my head. Maybe we must all escape this place. And what will the compensation be?


The horror and torpor of the first days were replaced by a thirst for satisfaction, we eagerly followed the news: the commission, meetings, criminal case, identifying the suspects ...

An attempt to conceal the scale of the disaster is illustrated by inconsistencies in the "testimony" of representatives of the various departments:

On the 2nd of December, the Atyrau Regional Territorial Inspectorate for Forestry and Wildlife announced about 1.3 tons of harvested dead fish.

Temirbek MUSAGALIEV, Head of the Public Health Department, reported “110 units” and some “laboratory analysis, which showed that the composition of the water in the Urals is clean and there is no danger to the life and health of the population”. Importantly, Musagaliyev did not specify which components were specifically analysed.

The site of the National Accreditation Centre has information about 62 laboratories in the Atyrau region. I downloaded and studied the documents on the scope of accreditation of each of them. Serious research of drinking water in Atyrau is conducted by 4 large chemical laboratories, for a total of almost a hundred criteria and indicators of the spectrum of hydro chemical analyses. These are petroleum products, APAVs, phenol, cyanides, selenium, mercury, benzopyrene, nitrites, nitrates, phosphorus, formaldehyde, arsenic, etc. Which components has the Public Health Department ordered to be researched, in order to confidently declare the water safe? The water that the residents of Atyrau must drink?

Judging by a further scenario - ammonia (a potent gaseous toxic substance) was declared the first suspect at the local level. According to toxicologists, it is more effective to detect a volatile substance dissolved in water during the first few hours. It would appear the first pestilence was to become the last. But it did not.

On the 13th of December, the Deputy Head of the Atyrau Regional Territorial Inspection of Forestry and Fauna Arman MULDASHEV reports: there are no new fish deaths. But on the 18th of December, a fresh video became available in social networks - the fish are again dying.

On the 20th of December a new culprit was revealed. The Minister of Energy Kanat BOZUMBAEV sounded more convincing - he listed the components of research: temperature, pH, ammonium nitrogen, surfactants, suspended solids, total iron, petroleum products, nitrates, nitrites, sulphates, dry residue, chlorides, and phenols. And he consequently announced the excess of chlorides.

Bleaching, is this believable? I am not a chemist, but it is apparent to me, that for consequences of such magnitude, large volumes of chlorine must have been dumped into the river? The incident would qualify as a diversion. Moreover, the human sense of smell is quite an analyser: if the concentration of chlorine was so high, we could simply not drink this water; however, it is just as easy to detect ammonia - the pungent smell of ammonia on poisoned sites lasts up to a week.

And the last pebble in the ministerial garden – crucially the life of chlorine in water is also very short, traces of chlorine compounds evaporate after a day. That is, it could potentially poison and evaporate. But either it is not chlorine, or someone continues to merge production volumes of chlorine into the river.

Time passes, but officials stubbornly deny the obvious reality:

On the 25th of December, the Deputy Head of the Public Health Department, Amantai Zhumagaliev, refers to water samples and specimens of still living fish: “All test results cause no concern.” But wait, in what toxicological laboratory were the biomaterial researches conducted, if in reports they still like to call the Atyrau oblast, the “flagship of the fishing industry”? Experts say that the test results are correct only if samples of live fish are tested.


I contacted the laboratory of the Caspian Scientific Research Institute of Fisheries (CaspNIRKh), in the Astrakhan region. The toxicologist requested her name be withheld but agreed to comment on the situation. She admitted that she had heard about the catastrophe in the Urals, and that she and her colleagues were following the development of events.

- The media mentioned chlorine as a cause. But it evaporates in the first few hours. Ammonia or maybe ammonium nitrogen? I do not know, it is difficult to determine both indicators, since they evaporate during the first day, it depends on the methods used. Of course, there is rapid analyses, but all this does not inspire confidence, I confess. If the content in the water was of such a concentration, the residents would smell ammonia or chlorine, the expert states.

Have you undertaken an analysis of our fish or water?

- If I'm not mistaken, there have been some attempts. But we have a prerequisite that the fish for the samples should still be alive, and with this there are problems. The state of the river and fish upstream is investigated, from the site where the dead fish are tracked - the issue of enterprises operating around the area and substances used during technological production are examined. In my opinion, there is another possibility: a source of poisoning from old unauthorized burials of poisonous chemical substances? Perhaps even since Soviet times. You know how we loved to bury everything. They will dig a hole a little deeper, everything will merge, they will bury, and it remains hidden beneath the ground. Maybe these facts were withheld and quietly concealed. Such a burial could simply be washed away by groundwater or brought to the surface. Now no one knows, there are no traces. It is necessary to turn to the archives, to scrutinise old materials, to identify the enterprises from the Soviet era, who were working with strong poisonous chemical substances. These substances must be something very strong, judging by the consequences,” says my Astrakhan interlocutor.


“We have not registered a single fish death in the Ural River, there were only three cases in shallow reservoirs, and in fact these are small rivers with stagnant water,” said my colleague, a journalist at the Ural Week newspaper, Lukpan Akhmedyarov.

So, the Urals upstream is clear. At present, the highest point in the stream is in our area, where the dead fish are found - Geologist. And below there, down to Peshnoye, the river is teeming with remains. Are the sites explored by a geologist? In this area of the river, I know of only the CPC and KTO oil pipeline pipes laid along the bottom. Have these businesses been checked for culpability? What other companies are working higher? And maybe it’s worth looking to the past and asking questions in the past tense - which enterprises worked there 10-20-30 years ago? But questions need to be asked, answers need to be found.

On the 10th of December last year, at a meeting of a special commission, Nurlan NOGAEV, Governor of the Atyrau region, gave several instructions to the authorized bodies.

I will give the whole quotation on the following points:

"The problem must be solved urgently."

Not solved.

The reason is unknown.

"All the forces of the authorized bodies should be sent to prevent possible new instances of fish being poisoned."

Fish are dying to this day.

And instead of a thousand words, a course of action is required.

Written on the 6th of March.

I have conveyed everything …. for today.


March 11 2019, 10:53

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