4. Lake Baikal: a threatened jewel

Posted: 14 June 2001

Author: Alexander Shestakov

Glory sea, Holy Baikal..." is the beginning of one of Russia's most famous folk songs. Like the Volga River, Baikal is a national treasure. And, in 1990, it was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, to be cherished and preserved for the benefit of humanity.

Baikal is full of superlatives. It is the deepest lake in the world, plunging down to 1,637 metres. Like a long, deep gash in the earth's crust, its 31,000 km² surface area holds 23,000 km³ of water - nearly a fifth of all the freshwater on earth (not including glaciers). Baikal is fed by 336 river systems, which provide it with some 60 km³ of water a year. Its drainage basin covers more than a million km² of Siberia and Mongolia. And it is the oldest lake on the planet, dating back more than 3 billion years. Not surprisingly, Baikal boasts a rich diversity of plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else. Of 2,600 species of plants and animals which thrive in the lake's clear, oxygen-rich waters, 84 per cent (some 1,800) are endemic. Among the lake's unique species include the Baikal seal, the only freshwater seal on the planet, and a special fish, the omul (Coregonus autumnalis migratorius), which is an important source of protein for the people who live around lake and depend on it for their livelihoods.

The Baikal region is also rich in natural resources, including gemstones and valuable minerals, such as diamonds, gold, silver, nickel, iron-ore, lead and zinc. Its timber reserves are estimated at 4.5 billion m³.

As of 1994, some 2.6 million people lived in the vicinity of the lake. Although population pressures are low - there are only 2.5 people per km² in the region as a whole - human activities have had an increasingly negative impact on the lake and its ecosystems, especially in the second half of the 20th century.

Ironically, economic development began over 300 years ago with the founding of the Irkutsk prison colony in the first half of the 17th century. Once the region's natural wealth was realised, development accelerated, particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917. But economic development of the region did not shift into high gear until after the Second World War. During the post-war period, metallurgical industries were built, along with pulp and paper mills, power plants burning fossil fuels and saw mills, processing timber cut in the lake's generous watershed.

Agricultural activities intensified over the same period. With Baikal soils highly unstable, increasing loads of erosion sediment were flushed into near-shore waters. Soil erosion to the lake increased by two and a half times over the past 50 years.

With the soil came mounting pollution from agricultural chemicals, especially organochlorine pesticides like DDT. In 1986, scientists monitoring the health of the lake estimated that about 230 metric tons of DDT had entered Baikal's coastal waters; another 400 metric tons of the poison was thought to remain in agricultural soils around the lake.

In the period 1985-89, Russian scientists monitoring the health of the lake noticed that concentrations of DDT and PCBs had decreased in Baikal seal pups, but increased in adults over 20 years old (reaching levels of 60 mg/kg of blubber).

Atmospheric pollution in this sensitive region has also increased with the level of industrial development. Polluting emissions from industry and municipalities around the lake, particularly in the cities of Irkutsk, Angarsk, Ulan-Ude, Shelikhov, Cheremkhovo and Sludyanka, have had localised impacts on the environment. In 1989, emissions from stationary sources in these cities and surrounding areas amounted to 664,000 metric tons of particulate pollution.

The real polluter of Baikal, however, is liquified wastes from both industrial and municipal sources. None of the cities in the region, for instance, have adequate sewage treatment plants; much of the sewage goes into the lake untreated or only partially treated. And industrial effluents are a growing menace to the lake's near-shore ecology. The worst offender by far is the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill, which began operating in 1966. Situated in Baikalsk City, it produced 163,000 metric tons of different types of sulphate cellulose in 1989. Effluents, which are pumped into the lake virtually untreated, have formed a highly polluted zone on the lake bottom covering some 20 km². In 1992, investigators discovered that the plant was discharging over 74 million metric tons of untreated waste water into the lake every year. Recommendations made by a panel of experts came to nothing with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the devolution of power from Moscow to oblasts (regional governments).

Another big polluter of Baikal is the Selenga River, the lake's largest feeder river, which originates in Mongolia, and courses through a heavily industrialised area before dumping its polluted waters into the lake. It brings in hefty loads of heavy metals, nitrates and sulphates, along with oily wastes. "Boat captains will not go within a mile of the Selenga delta, because pollution is so thick," notes Gary Cook, Director of Baikal Watch at the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco.

More recently, the state of Baikal's forests have also deteriorated, both from pollution and over-harvesting. Nearly 8 million m³ of timber were logged in the region in 1993. With little in the way of replanting taking place, ecologists worry that the decreased forest cover will pose more problems for the region's besieged animals, especially those threatened with extinction like the snow leopard, red wolf and two species of crane (the hooded crane and Siberian white crane). Another 110 species of animals in the Baikal region are threatened.

Conservation of Baikal started in the 1960s, with a special Ministerial Decree which limited economic activities in the lake's watershed, called for the rational use of the region's resources and set aside reserves and protected areas. In 1971, 1977, 1987 and 1988, additional decrees were issued aimed at the rational management of the lake's huge basin. During this period, more than 21 million hectares were set aside as national parks, scientific reserves, protected landscapes, scenic rivers, greenbelts and landmarks. Presently, the lower house (Duma) of the Russian Parliament is considering a draft federal law on the comprehensive management of Baikal and its watershed. If passed, this law would also create a conservation zone around the lake - divided into three ecological zones - which would limit development activities. In November 1994, Prime Minister Chenomyrdin signed a decree creating a federal programme of some 100 practical measures to stabilize and improve the Baikal Region's ecological situation over two years. Estimated costs are 1,640 billion roubles ($440 million). The 15-person Baikal Commission established by the decree consists of representatives from all layers of government, from the federal level down to oblasts (regions) and districts (rajony). "So far," says Sergei Shapkhaev, director of the Commission, "We have not encountered opposition. The most serious problem seems to be that the actual mechanisms of enforcing laws in court are not in place."

The first zone, called the Central Zone, includes the lake's water area, including all islands, a coastal water conservation area and adjacent protected reserves and parks. In this zone most economic activities are prohibited. Special articles will regulate land use in this area, including forestry, recreation, tourism and mining.

The second zone, called a Buffer Zone, consists of the catchment basin surrounding the Central Zone, but within Russia. In this zone all nuclear activities, including the transport and disposal of nuclear wastes are prohibited, along with the storage of dangerous chemicals.

The third zone is mostly one of atmospheric influence and consists of the territory around the lake which lies outside the catchment basin to the north and northwest, up to 200 kilometres away, which could affect Baikal through the atmospheric transport of airborne chemical pollutants.

A special article in the proposed legislation deals with the special needs and interests of local indigenous tribes in the region of the lake, including the Buryats, Evenks, Soyots and Tofalars. Among the priorities for proper management of the Baikal region include the following:

  • Sorting out major land use issues and the development of legislation to support sustainable land use practices.

  • Working out interagency and intergovernmental mechanisms of co-operation in managing the region.

  • Setting up a monitoring network and disseminating information to policy-makers on Baikal's environment.

  • Retooling the energy industry, so that it is far less polluting and far more efficient.

  • Upgrading all polluting industries.

  • Promoting the rational and ecologically sound management of agriculture in the region.
Although the jewel of Siberia is not as threatened as it once was, there is still much work to be done in order to safeguard this unique ecosystem and the communities of plants and animals that it supports. Baikal is back from the brink, but the region needs a comprehensive management plan, one that takes into consideration the needs of local communities. Once the region's people are behind a management plan, there is no reason it cannot be made to work sustainably, preserving the lake's ecology and the economies of the people who depend on it for their very lives.

Alexander Shestakov is Director of the institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Native peoples hold key to success

The population of the Bailkal region comprises about 100 ethnic groups, but most of them are very small. Russians account for more than 70 per cent of the inhabitants, and the largest ethnic minority, the Buryats, make up a further 25 per cent. Among other indigenous groups are the Evenks (who originated in the Baikal region but resettled all over Siberia), the Tofalars (fewer than 1,000 people) and the Soyotes (or Tuvinians).

The Buryats (some 300,000 live in the Balkal region) are of Mongol origin and Buddhists. Before the Russian Revolution Buryats divided traditionally into two groups: settled cattle-breeders and farmers, and nomadic herdsmen. Industrialisation and the policy of settling nomadic people destroyed their ancient way of life, economics, ethics and farming traditions. Intensive ploughing of virgin lands in the 1950s led to a sharp reduction in pastures and hayfields, which had an impact on cattle breeding. At the same time the Buryats were forced to increase the numbers of sheep they reared, resulting in a sixfold overcapacity of the remaining pastures.

Rural settlement were amalgamated under a Stalinist policy of eliminating "unpromising" villages (1,250 of which vanished between 1939 and 1989). 'Modern development' also affected the Evenks, who lost their ethnic identity and came to the threshold of extinction. They now number only 1,650 and their life expectancy is one of the lowest of the indigenous peoples of the former Soviet Union - only 32 years.

With the Evenks affected by the policy of compulsory settlement, the taiga forest lost its thoughtful guardians, who were replaced by alien hunters and loggers who only looked on the forest as a source of profit. Intensive regional development deprived the Evenks of their traditional economy based on hunting and fishing, which was further disrupted by the construction of the Baikal-Amur railroad.

Most ethnic groups had a very strict system of taboos for using natural resources, supported by the Shamanist and Buddhist religions. No one was permitted to kill a doe with young or immature animals. The hunting of rare species was forbidden. No felling was allowed in certain forest areas, and the Buryat never felled timber near the Lake.

Anti-religious policies led not only to the destruction of about 40 Buddhist temples and churches and the persecution of shamans and lamas, but also to the extermination of spiritual traditions and the nurturing attitude of the local people towards natural resources.

Ecological problems in the Balkal region cannot be resolved without the preservation and support of the unique local ethno-cultural systems. According to one expert, Sergei Shapkhoey, "the preservation of Lake Baikal and that of the ethnic diversity of the Baikal region are two inter-related goals which should he pursued together."

Alexander Shestakov