Staunton, February 28 — For most of the last generation, people in Eurasia and around the world have been on a death watch for the Aral Sea. That vigil is now over: the Aral Sea has died. But a serious new if quite different crisis has now broken out regarding Lake Baikal, relations between a Russian and a non-Russian federal subject and between Russia and Mongolia.
Over the course of nearly the same period, Russian and international environmental activists have been concerned about the contamination of the world’s deepest lake by a cellulose factory on its shores. That problem isn’t over, but the new problems that precious body of water faces are also different and considerably more politically sensitive.
The level of water in Lake Baikal has fallen to a level not seen in at least a century, largely because the rivers that feed the lake are putting significantly less water into it, because people are using ever more water from it, and because of a drought last year, Yekaterina Trofimova of Russkaya Planeta says.
Lake Baikal is fed by three major rivers, the Selenga, the Verkhnaya Angara and the Barguzin, and a large number of smaller ones. Most of these are in the Buryat Republic, with only one, the Angara, is the predominantly ethnic Russian Irkutsk Region, and that division lies behind much but far from all of the current controversy.
According to the Buryat government “and also many scholars and ecologists,” the drought is not a sufficient explanation of the current problem. It and they argue that the Angara hydroelectric dam is largely to blame and that Moscow has ignored the impact the falling water level has had on the environment, including leading to more peat fires in Buryatia.
Irkutsk officials, including those responsible for the energy sector, respond that they are not to blame and say that they have maintained flows at levels set by the Yenisei Basin Water Administration of the Russian government’s water resources board – but they haven’t responded to objections that they should adjust the flow to take into account the drought.
Moscow has now gotten involved. Three weeks ago, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sought to push off the problem by issuing an order allowing the use of Baikal water by all concerned even though the lake has fallen to a new low level, but he said that this would be allowed only in 2015. What will happen next year is far from clear.
So far, there have not been any real shortages for human and industrial consumption, a pattern that makes it more difficult for those who want to address the problem early on far more difficult. But many environmentalists and many political figures in Buryatia say that the appearance of such shortages is only a matter of time.
The Irkutsk authorities and the Russian officials who operate the hydroelectric dam and other industries respond that Buryatia is complaining too much, that there are no real dangers, and that in fact, the proper response for Moscow is to eliminate the restrictions firms and the dam have been operating under since 2001.
Indeed, the Russian officials and businessmen feel that they have an additional reason for that: the controversial cellulose plant which had been dumping so much waste into Lake Baikal has been closed. There thus should be more room for the development of other industries. But if that happens, the amount of pollution going into the lake will rise again.
Into this increasingly tense standoff between the Russian oblast and the Buryat republic has come a new player: Mongolia, which wants to gain energy independence from Russia by developing a hydroelectric station on the Selenga, “the main water artery of Baikal, providing half of its inflow.”
Russian and international ecologists are currently seeking to have the World Bank refuse funding to Mongolia for such a project in order to block it, but Ulan Bator has some alternative possible sources of funding so that it may be able to go ahead even if that happens.
Whatever happens in that regard, Lake Baikal seems set to become not only a source of discord between environmentalists and industrialists and between a Russian region and a Buryat republic but also between the Russian Federation and Mongolia – and standing behind Mongolia, China as well.