Forced labour, persecution, and political indoctrination are not the only things Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang are suffering from. Nuclear tests near to Uighur populations are the new addition leading to thousands of death.
The US State Department, in the month of April, said in a report that China may have secretly conducted low-yield underground nuclear tests at Lop Nur test site despite claiming to observe an international pact banning such blasts.
The report further claimed extensive excavation activity being carried out at Lop Nur throughout 2019. Though the test might come as a surprise for international community, for Uighurs it is just another one added to the long list of nuclear tests that have been conducted at Lop Nur.
Urumqi, Turpan, Qumul and Korla are cities with Uighur populations that reside within 320 km from the test site. The nuclear tests, conducted over the years, have led to death of around 200,000 people and at least 1.5 million people have been affected by radioactive material released during the nuclear tests.
To give the extent of damage caused by these tests, the total amount of plutonium released over the years in the atmosphere of Xinjiang is estimated to be 6 million times more than what was released during the Chernobyl accident.
Cases of leukaemia, bone cancer, skin cancer, breast cancer, brain tumours, and bone diseases are on the rise in the region. There is no healthcare system and the victims have to pay for the cost of treatment on their own expense.
Nuclear tests have also polluted air and underground water with radiation resulting in diseases and destruction of ecology. The Techa River, which is the main source of water supply for many people, is also affected by radiation that has probably led to 90% of the patients in Xinjiang suffer from blood cancer.
Besides nuclear hazards, the Uighurs are also witnessing exploitation of their natural resources.
On April 22, the Uighur Human Rights Protect (UHRP), in a statement, said that the Chinese government had increased extraction of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) natural resources like minerals and fossil fuels, and had expanded intensive agriculture and industrial production in the region.
The UNHRP believes that Chinese government’s plans to establish water intensive textile industries would only exacerbate pollution and water scarcity. “Heavy polluting industries are already being relocated from Chinese provinces to XUAR. The Uighurs are not only being marginalised from exploitation of their homeland’s natural resources, but also have no freedom to speak about environmental issues affecting their well-being”.
China should allow an independent investigation to find out the extent to which the Uighurs have been affected by nuclear testing and the damage these tests have caused to the environment. It needs to acknowledge its responsibility and provide appropriate medical care to the victims. It also needs to implement necessary measures to provide compensation to the victims.
The international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and environmental NGOs must continue to draw attention to this neglected issue.