Life in the shadow of a cement plant in Kazakhstan

Local residents and activists say that the Gezhouba Shieli cement plant, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is polluting the air, water and soil of a village less than a kilometre away

Across Kazakhstan, Chinese state-funded megaprojects are springing up. The Belt and Road Initiative, a massive trade and diplomatic venture linking China to the rest of Asia and to Europe, is a priority in the Kazakh government’s economic development plans. But these projects have impacts for citizens, who say that their concerns and welfare are not being taken into account.

Such is the case of the Gezhouba Shieli cement plant. The plant was built and is operated by China Gezhouba Group Company, in Kyzylorda region in southwest Kazakhstan. It started operating in December 2018, and can produce 2,500 tonnes of cement clinker every day. This is the main ingredient of concrete, a significant amount of which is used in Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium industries (the cement is also sold for domestic use by civilians and exported).

The Gezhouba Shieli plant is one of 52 projects Kazakhstan and China have agreed will be built in the Central Asian country.

Residents of Kodamanov village, many of whom live little more than 500 metres away from the plant, are worried about the pollution of air, water and soil. As well as creating noise pollution, cement plants emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide. Local people say their health is suffering, and their livestock are dying. But many fear retribution for speaking out against the project.

In 2009 2,742 people lived in Kodamanov; now the population is less than 2,400.

What next for Kodamanov residents?

In response to protests and media coverage, in April 2020 and March 2021 the plant sent teams to test air pollution levels. The results have not been published, but residents were told they did not find evidence of high pollution. On the day of the tests, the plant had not been operating for a couple of days, and the wind was not blowing from the plant to the area that was assessed.

For almost two years, villagers and civil society have been trying to address their grievances through two court cases. One claim, brought by a resident of Almaty to a court in the country’s capital, sought access to the Environmental Impact Assessment and conclusion of the Government Environmental Commission; this was rejected in June 2021. The other claim, submitted by the residents of Kodamanov, seeks to shut down the plant until a 1-kilometre sanitary protection zone has been set up. At the first hearing of the case on 9 December the parties failed to reach an agreement; the next hearing is scheduled for 28 December.

Gezhouba Shieli Cement Company and the local mayor were approached by campaigners during the making of this film. They declined to comment. The Third Pole also invited Gezhouba Shieli Cement Company to respond to the issues raised.