Property developers and the municipal government in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana are coming under more fire after a popular wetland was sacrificed for residential flats and other infrastructure.
That some of the criticism now originates within the ruling establishment suggests authorities are beginning to grapple with residents’ growing aversion to top-down city planning.
The loss of large tracts of Lake Taldykol – until recently a stopover for migratory birds including flamingos – has been mourned by many in the city and around Kazakhstan. It is all the more shocking because the bulk of the devastation occurred over the space of two years.
Work to drain Lake Taldykol began during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although the wetlands had few visitors without feathers in those days, keen eyes spotted – and filmed – trucks dumping soil into the water.
Astana authorities later confirmed that the lake would be emptied to accommodate new education and health infrastructure.
But they haven't escaped censure.
In July, a court ruled that the city was guilty of neglect and should establish a water protection zone in three surviving sections of the wetlands over the course of three months beginning on August 2.
On September 21, lawmakers from the pro-government People’s Party of Kazakhstan appealed to the state prosecutor to investigate what they said was the city’s non-fulfillment of the court order and its continued greenlighting of building work in the area. (A water protection zone is not the equivalent of a blanket ban on construction; a body nominally subordinate to the Ecology Ministry could still allow work.) The lawmakers’ appeal was covered by Kazakhstan’s state broadcaster Khabar.
While Mayor Altai Kulginov has borne the brunt of public anger over the debacle, ire has also been trained on developers, such as the construction firm BI Group. These companies, inevitably linked by rumor to members of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s family, did not have to work too hard to get their way in the past.
But growing resistance to Astana’s concrete jungle saw housing development plans in another green strip of the capital scrapped earlier this year. Last month the city government released its latest plans for “social objects instead of residential blocks” based on appeals from residents.
That was just a day before a rare, government-permitted demonstration against overdevelopment that saw protesters hold up placards decrying the proliferation of “anthills” – slang for high-rise blocks.
Marginal improvements in government-citizen dialogue came too late for Taldykol, however.
The informal civic group SOS Taldykol was refused permission to hold demonstrations no fewer than five times, the group said back in February.
By that point the damage had already been done.
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.