Oil derricks are silhouetted against the rising sun at an oilfield in the capital Baku. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
The Absheron Peninsula, stretching into the Caspian Sea from the easternmost part of Azerbaijan, is where the capital city, Baku, and all its satellite cities lie.
Known for its Caspian beaches, horticultural wealth, and its mulberries, the peninsula houses well over a third of the nation's population.
But, it is also home to Azerbaijan's most well-known industry: oil and gas.
Absheron is one of the oldest sites of oil extraction in the world, where by the late 1800s the production and export of petroleum was commonplace.
Even the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who visited the Caucasus in the 13th century reported seeing naturally flowing oil in the area in his travelogues, observing that the material is “good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab."
Well over a century of industrial onshore oil production, however, has left its mark on the ecosystem. Historical oil fields dotted with rusting derricks can be spotted to this day around Balakhani—located to the north of Baku.
Most such abandoned facilities date back to the Soviet period and, even when still operational, they failed to fulfill the most basic health and safety requirements of the time.
Puddles full of questionable oily substances used to be a common site in neglected oil fields around Baku in the early 2000s, which prompted the New York-based Blacksmith Institute to put the area in its list of ten most polluted places in the world.
The leakage of oil-related substances into the ecosystem is endangering the local flora and fauna, while posing serious health risks to over three million people living across the Absheron Peninsula.
Over 30,000 hectares may have been contaminated by oil products, according to the World Bank.
But, all hope is not lost: there are joint efforts in progress to revitalize the region's ecological situation, bringing Absheron to European standards in terms of ecological indexes.
The World Bank took an interest in the fight against pollution in the region over two decades ago, but the bank's involvement in Azerbaijan became more serious in 2008, when the government of Azerbaijan approached the World Bank with a request for help in the implementation of a plan to address the environmental challenges in Absheron Peninsula.
In the same year the bank backed the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) in its efforts to decontaminate vast oil-polluted areas, by financing the purchase of purpose-built soil cleaning machinery.
In a separate initiative, “the World Bank supported the construction of a hazardous wastes landfill which remains the only facility in Azerbaijan and fully meets international standards," according to a 2017 report by the organization.
Always keen to address ecological issues, in 2016 it decided to invest in the Absheron Lakes Cleanup and Rehabilitation initiative, and in a joint effort with the Azerbaijani government, contributing USD85 million to the cause.
Lakes are particularly susceptible to environmental hazards, as pollutants can accumulate in them over the years and penetrate to aquifers.
There are some 200 small and large lakes in the peninsula, which have been harmed both by years of oil extraction and the discharge of wastewater. Without timely intervention, the lakes, in turn, can pass on the harmful contaminants to the larger ecosystem.
The World Bank is currently satisfied with the Azerbaijani side's commitment to the revitalization efforts, stating that “the government of Azerbaijan undertook a strategic effort to clean up a part of the Boyuk Shor Lake and has already started the lakes' second phase cleanup."
A thorough cleanup of the Absheron Peninsula could strengthen the region's unique biodiversity and natural splendor, while boosting the tourism industry—which is after all a leading candidate for economic diversification in Azerbaijan.