Azerbaijan: Living in Oil
Upon arrival at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev international airport most foreign visitors make their way to the city center along the modern Heydar Aliyev highway, a thoroughfare lined with newly constructed walls and finely manicured parks. The center of Baku itself now features glitzy buildings and stunning apartments surrounding the UNESCO-listed site of Baku’s walled old city.
Strolling along flawless well-lit boulevards lined with designer stores, a visitor gathers the impression that energy exports are bringing widespread prosperity to Azerbaijan.
Venturing a few kilometers outside this well-planned cocoon, a far more sobering reality of Azerbaijan's development exists right alongside the very oil wells that create the appearance of prosperity. The same oil fields that provide the country between roughly $9-12 billion annually from oil and gas revenue are also home to some of the poorest residents of Baku.
The neighborhoods are called Suraxanı and Sabayil and they are two of the most polluted and neglected areas of the sprawling city. Ironically, many residents of the two neighborhoods work for SOCAR, the state energy concern. Here, the people live on the oil fields, not around them.
Ramshackle abodes situated among both working and derelict Soviet-era oil wells dot the land. Children play amid puddles that collect oil runoff from nearby wells. There is a lack of basic civic services, including sewage infrastructure, garbage collection and paved roads.
"Yes I work here," answers an oil worker for the state oil company SOCAR who requested anonymity. "I also live here. Welcome to Baku. Welcome to Sabayil."
Some inhabitants came to these neighborhoods in the late 1990's after being displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
These families have few options, preferring perhaps to overlook the neglect from SOCAR and the state in order to hold on to their homes. In the past the state has sometimes removed squatters on SOCAR-owned land with little or no compensation. Voicing concerns about garbage or pollution could thus jeopardize entire neighborhoods.
To an outsider, places like Suraxanı and Sabayil might not represent something worth saving. But for locals, the same oil well that pollutes their water also may feed their family. The paradox these oil fields provide are deeper than what appears on the surface.
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