RENEWED DREAMS

Azerbaijan 2014 | INDUSTRY & MINING | FOCUS: SUMGAIT

From being the Soviet Union's industrial experiment, Sumgait has transformed itself into a modern industrial hub.

Located only 30 kilometers away from Baku, the evolution of the city of Sumgait encapsulates Azerbaijan's industrial development. Sumgait was established as a city in November 1949 on the territory of an old settlement that had existed in the Absheron Peninsula since the 9th century. It has since become Azerbaijan's third most populous city after Baku and Ganja, with a population of 313,000 according to the 2010 census, up from 6,000 inhabitants in 1939.

A blooming industrial city, Sumgait has had a checkered history, which saw it turn into one of the Soviet Union's top industrial centers, but also one of the most polluted cities in the world. The city's industrial base developed fast between 1950 and 1965, a period in which all the major industries were commissioned, including the chemical and petrochemical industries, metallurgy, building materials, food production, and industrial equipment. From the 1970s onward, Sumgait's 33 industrial facilities simply built upon existing infrastructure by expanding production capacity, but the bases remained those set in the 1950s.

The rapid industrialization and overutilization of antiquated machinery led to unprecedented pollution in the area. While few exact measurements were made during that time, the few that were recorded such as child mortality indicate that Sumgait offered precarious living conditions for its residents. Thus, factory workers were required to retire after 10 years due to the toxicity of their working conditions. And a children's cemetery that still exists nowadays remains proof of this dark period in Sumgait's history. The city's dire environmental conditions eventually led to its placement on the Soviet Union's list of priority cities with the most polluted environments.

However, starting in 1994, Azerbaijan's national leader, President Heydar Aliyev, initiated a large-scale Free Economic Area project on the territory of Sumgait. The project established a new system of goals aimed at solving the city's environmental problems. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, national and local authorities collaborated with institutions such as the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank to rehabilitate Sumgait and the industrial areas in greater Baku. As a result, approximately 85% of the industrial facilities in Sumgait were closed down; thus, significantly reducing pollution levels.

Nowadays, the city's population, which includes almost 50,000 refugees resettled from the illegally occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region, benefits from a blossoming urban area, where the focus is equally on sustainable development as it is on industrial growth. As of 2011, Sumgait boasted 49 schools, 13 vocational and music schools, the Sumgait State University, and a teacher's institute. Hospitals, sports facilities, green spaces, residential buildings, and cultural facilities such as libraries, cultural centers, and even an historical museum have also been built. The disposal of residential and industrial waste, a major problem in the past, has been handed over to a private company that works with the latest technology to reduce the environmental impact of any waste.

Even after the Soviet-era facilities were closed down, Sumgait has remained Azerbaijan's second biggest industrial center after Baku. Some of the most noteworthy companies operating in the city are Azerpipe, Azeraluminium, Sumgait Aluminium, Ethylene-Polyethylene, Sumgait Superphosphate, glass producer Khazar OJSC, Sumgait Knitted Goods Factory, and Sumgait Compressors, many of which have been privatized.

An important recent project in Sumgait that is receiving investor attention is the Sumgait Chemical Industrial Park (SCIP), the development of which started with a Presidential decree issued in December 2011. The 167 hectare complex will host pharmaceutical, construction, and agricultural businesses, in addition to chemical, automotive, and electronics producers. It is meant as a self-sufficient complex, which will include residential facilities, an exhibition center, laboratories, sports center, schools, and hospitals. SCIP aims to attract domestic and foreign investors, and its management has already received proposals for 20 investment projects in the complex.

Another important development in the city is the Sumgait Technology Park (STP). Inaugurated in 2012, STP has 17 plants that produce a range of technological goods, including cables, transformers, high-voltage equipment, hydro turbines, water pumps, electric engines pipes, and technical gases. Sumgait also hosts Azerbaijan's first solar panel plant, which was commissioned in December 2011 and has an annual production capacity of 100,000 units of photovoltaic modules.

The rapid pace of industrial development may have been a cause of concern for Sumgait's dwellers in the past, but the paradigm has now changed thanks to the authorities' concern with the environment. Case in point, during an April 2014 cabinet meeting, President Ilham Aliyev reiterated his administration's concern for the environment by stating that “every year should be the year of environment" in Azerbaijan. Sumgait is thus poised to benefit from a continuous improvement in environmental quality and a sustainable urban development plan, which, coupled with job opportunities and numerous investment projects, are bound to turn it into the industrial hub for the Caucasus in the coming years.