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Western Europe – Western China project brings hope and concerns
Economic benefits are offset, some say, by harm to environment
By Daniyar Serikov
Help wanted: Construction workers, road bridge construction workers, highway construction workers. In Kazakhstan.
Thousands of jobs will be one of the immediate benefits when construction of the Western Europe-Western China highway project begins in 2010.
The three-year project to build the 3,000-km road from China across Kazakhstan to Russia, and on to Western Europe, is the World Bank’s most expensive project to date.
The total cost is estimated at US $6.7 billion with financing by a variety of banks including the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Bank of Development, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, among others.
Jobs aside, the project is not without its detractors, primarily because of anticipated environmental and social costs.
“Environmentalists are concerned that the road will disturb many forms of fauna that are listed in the Red Book. For example along the river Shu (Turar-Riskulovsk district) is the migratory route of the Eurasian crane, while the argali migrate in the Karatau Ridge area”, said Svetlana Beisova, a civic activist in Zhambyl region with the Taraz Initiative Centere NGO.
Argali are a wild mountain sheep that live in the highlands of Central Asia that are listed in the Red Book of endangered species.
“Problems of an environmental character bother local officials less than they do the farmers. For government officials the road is the priority”, Beisova said.
Projected employment for the three-year project is estimated to range from 35,000 to 50,000 people. Moto Konishi, head of World Bank’s Central Asian office, told the newspaper “Panorama” it would be 35,000; Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced last May it could be 50,000.
“The economic gains for road users (are) time and operating costs savings; improved road safety and a decrease in number of traffic accidents; better access for local communities to basic healthcare and education services; and development of small and medium enterprises for services along the road in economically stagnating regions of Kazakhstan”, said Elena Karaban, former World Bank representative in Kazakhstan, and now the Central Asian liaison communication officer in its headquarters at Washington, D.C.
Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov signed a long-term loan agreement with the consortium of major international donors for the project March 30.
Plans call for the highway to be built primarily along existing roads in southern Kazakhstan and the Aktobe oblast in the northwest. It will start at Khorgos, go through Almaty and Shymkent, then up to the western border with the Russian Federation.
Still, it will mark a new era in the country because Kazakhstan lacks major developed highways. The country’s current transportation infrastructure is collapsing in many areas outside of major cities.
The corridor will become the most economically viable and convenient for continental transit from China to Europe, according to Eunkyung Kwon, Principal Transport Specialist from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) headquarters in Manila.
Nazarbayev has defined the project as a “people’s project” reminiscent of the gigantic projects of the Soviet era.
According to Beisova, one main problem is a lack of transparency about the project. She said there is “the issue of a lack of understanding on the part of regional bureaucrats involved in the project, and their secretiveness and unwillingness to share information about the project”.
She says that many public hearings in local districts on the project implementation were conducted with deliberate haste, with violations of the donors’ procedures, and that people were not adequately informed about the upcoming project well enough to understand its impact.
Beisova raised her concerns in the publication “Respublika”, and the ADB sent a delegation to Kazakh communities to discuss local concerns.
“In some regional districts covered by the project, the cooperative and participatory model of project implementation works well thanks to the local authorities and the active involvement on the part of international financial institutions”, Karaban said.
She cited Temirlanovka village in South Kazakhstan as one example.
“The public hearings on the project brought positive results because of the participation of the local population”, Karaban said.
After a public hearing, the project route was shifted to mitigate the negative effects of the project on the community. Karaban said this was convenient for both the local population and the project planners, since it decreased the number of houses earmarked for demolition.