Saving Baikal

Article excerpt

Siberia's Lake Baikal is old, very old.

At 25,000,000, it has long since exceeded the average life expectancy
(30,000 years) of a lake on our planet.
It is slowly (about an inch per year) growing into an ocean.

The first humans likely arrived at Lake Baikal about 100,000 years ago. The first domesticated reindeer herds may have been driven from here. It was in this region that Genghis Khan launched his empire. And it was here that White Guards mounted the last major campaign of the Russian Civil War. Yet these and other crucial turning points in human history hardly affected Baikal. The lake was huge, humankind small.

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In the past century, however, the equation changed. An industrializing Soviet Union began to populate Siberia with people and factories on an immense scale and with a merciless rapacity. Then, in the post-Soviet era, the decentralized drive for a modern economy deepened the danger. Not even the world's deepest, cleanest, and most bio-diverse lake could weather this century-long attack unchanged. And yet, the same changes that have brought new dangers have provided new possibilities for concerned residents to defend Siberia's Sacred Sea.

Exploitation: Then

In Ulan-Ude, a city of 380,000 some 75 kilometers east of Lake Baikal, is the world's largest Lenin head. The massive monument was unveiled in the 1970s and is a graphic reflection of the obscene gigantism of the Soviet era, first played out on Baikal with the construction of Irkutsk Hydro-electrical Station (dam) between 1950 and 1956.

The construction of the Irkutsk dam on the Angara River, which drains Baikal, caused Baikal's water level to rise between four and five feet, swallowing up historic settlements. Shaman Rock, at the head of Angara River, once a location of both worship and social correction (criminals were left on the rock overnight; if they survived the whirling waters, they were forgiven), was turned into an unimpressive speck. The dam also hastened the demise of a massive system of islands in northern Baikal, which served as important nesting grounds for migratory birds from Asia and the Americas. These islands, already shaken by a massive earthquake in the 1930s (which lowered the level of the land six feet), are now largely submerged.

Yet worse was to come. In 1954, while the Irkutsk dam was being built, the Soviet government decided to build the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill on the shores of the lake, to manufacture high quality cord for aircraft tires. Despite vehement scientific opposition (and some of the first published public opposition to the government in the Soviet media), the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill went online in 1966, quickly exceeding all estimates of pollutants that would be expelled into the lake.

According to Baikal Environmental Wave (BEW), an Irkutsk-based environmental group, the mill's wastes "have accumulated in large sludge ponds that stretch some 11 kilometers along the shores of Baikal." The air is also being polluted-air pollution caused by the Baikalsk mill and another on the Selenga River (a Baikal tributary) has caused drying out of trees over an area of 2,000 square miles.

The damage wrought by the dam and the mills is unquestionable, but some Russian environmentalists have lately begun to question its severity. The dam may have flooded some beautiful islands, said Anna Lyutskaya, an environmentalist and teacher from Nizhneangarsk, but the birds have simply found other places to nest. And, despite the mills, Baikal remains one of the world's most pristine natural wonders. Pavel Bodrykh, a manager at the ecotourism firm Green Express, said that current studies show that Baikal's water is largely unaffected by the paper mill, "mainly because of the lake's enormous size."

Exploitation: Now

If Baikal escaped the Soviet Union's drive to industrialization relatively unscathed, it may not manage the same trick in the years to come. …