Kazakhstan faces several important environmental issues. As the site of the former Soviet Union's nuclear testing programs, areas of the nation have been exposed to high levels of nuclear radiation, and there is significant radioactive pollution. The nation also has 30 uranium mines, which add to the problem of uncontrolled release of radioactivity. Kazakhstan has sought international support to convince China to stop testing atomic bombs near its territory, because of the dangerous fallout.
Mismanagement of irrigation projects has caused the level of the Aral Sea to drop by 13 m, decreasing its size by 50%. The change in size has changed the climate in the area and revealed 3 million hectares of land that are now subject to erosion.
Air pollution in Kazakhstan is another significant environmental problem. Acid rain damages the environment within the country and also affects neighboring countries. In 1992 Kazakhstan had the world's 14th highest level of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, which totaled 297.9 million metric tons, a per capita level of 17.48 metric tons. In 1996, the total had dropped to 173.8 million metric tons. Pollution from industrial and agricultural sources has also damaged the nation's water supply. UN sources report that, in some cases, contamination of rivers by industrial metals is 160 to 800 times beyond acceptable levels. Pollution of the Caspian Sea is also a problem.
Kazakhstan's wildlife is in danger of extinction due to the overall level of pollution. According to current estimates, some areas of the nation will not be able to sustain any form of wildlife by the year 2015. In the areas where pollution is the most severe, 11 species of mammals and 19 species of birds and insects are already extinct. As of 2001, 15 mammal species, 15 bird species, 5 types of freshwater fish, and 36 species of plant are listed as threatened. Threatened species include the argali, Aral salmon, great bustard, snow leopard, and tiger. The mongolian wild horse has recently become extinct in the wild.
The environment of Kazakhstan began to suffer serious harm during the Soviet period. The country now faces an urgent need to address the Soviet legacy of ecological mismanagement. Between 1949 and 1991 the Soviet government conducted about 70 percent of all of its nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, mostly in the north-eastern area near the city of Semipalatinsk (now Semey). Nearly 500 nuclear explosions occurred both above and below ground near Semipalatinsk, while more than 40 nuclear detonations occurred at other testing grounds in western Kazakhstan and in the Qyzylqum desert. More than 1 million of Kazakhstan’s inhabitants were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation because the Soviet government did not evacuate or even warn nearby populations. In the late 1980s Kazakhs held large demonstrations calling for an end to the nuclear testing, and in 1991 the government of Kazakhstan put a stop to the practice. However, the testing grounds, and perhaps even underground aquifers (water-bearing layers of rock, sand, or gravel), remain highly contaminated. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk Organization, which led the campaign against nuclear testing during the 1980s, has turned its attention to teaching residents of polluted areas how to avoid nuclear contamination. One of every three children born in the Semipalatinsk region has mental or physical defects, and about half the population suffers from immune system deficiencies.
Another ecological disaster area in Kazakhstan is the Aral Sea, which is split roughly in half between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea has shrunk to less than half its former size since the early 1960s, when the Soviet government initiated a drive to increase cotton yields in the arid lands of Central Asia. Excessive irrigation substantially decreased inflow to the Aral, and the Aral’s shoreline began to recede rapidly. This has caused severe environmental problems in the Aral Sea Basin, including the destruction of wildlife habitat as a result of desertification (a process whereby previously habitable or arable land becomes desert). The Aral Sea crisis is also associated with a number of health problems, including respiratory infections and parasitic diseases. Efforts to address the crisis have focused on preventing further shrinkage of the Aral Sea, mainly because the damage is so severe that it is practically irreversible.
Kazakhstan also faces the problem of urban pollution, particularly in its eastern cities, which receive harmful emissions from lead and zinc smelters, a uranium-processing mill, and other industries. In recent years, environmental activist groups in Kazakhstan have begun lobbying for tighter emission controls. Other environmental issues in Kazakhstan include soil pollution from the overuse of pesticides in agriculture and the increasingly polluted waters of the Caspian Sea.