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'Baikal…I have never seen water that clear in my life'

State of emergency declared as Baikal falls to lowest level in 60 years

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23 January 2015


Levels at Baikal are about 40cm lower than in 2013. Picture: The Siberian Times 

A state of emergency has been declared in parts of Siberia after water levels in Lake Baikal fell to their lowest point in 60 years. Russia’s Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoy had asked the government to intervene with fears over disruption to heat and water supplies in Buryatia and Irkutsk.

Levels at Baikal – the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake – are about 40cm lower than in 2013, with water shortages in many communities already and fishermen reporting a lack of fish. The crisis, which is being blamed by many on alleged 'excessive drainage' for a major hydroelectric station, comes just weeks after officials feared water running out in some areas by spring.

It also comes as a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament has demanded that the prosecutor general steps in to reduce the flow of water to through the power plant to prevent potentially disastrous environmental consequences.

Campaigning group Greenpeace Russia has also called for an urgent review of the situation at Baikal because of 'negative implications' for fish and other wildlife.

Debate about the lake has intensified over the past few months, with the Siberian Times reporting in December that there were concerns about future water supplies, with some regions calling for the level to be lowered further temporarily to quell the crisis. Now a state of emergency has been declared in the Buryatia and Irkutsk regions to allow a solution to be found, with water levels just three inches above the minimum allowed.

State of emergency declared as Baikal falls to lowest level in 60 years 
State of emergency declared as Baikal falls to lowest level in 60 years. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Mr Donskoy said: 'There was a meeting of emergency situations commission and the decision was made to introduce the state of emergency. The shallow water was caused by climate, as the summer of 2014 was extremely dry. I came to the Russian Government with a suggestion to introduce state of emergency in both the Republic of Buryatia and Irkutsk region'.

Vladimir Svetelskiy, head of the Siberian Regional Centre for Ministry of Emergencies, added: 'If we have a normal amount of precipitation, we expect the water level in lake Baikal to get back to normal by July 2015'.

But officials in Buryatia have accused the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station of having contributed to the crisis through its excessive drainage of the lake during spring and summer last year. However, an extremely dry summer and the mass felling of trees along the banks of the Selenga, Baikal’s main tributary level, has also worsened the situation.

Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, the head of the Buryatia Republic, said: 'Our peat lands have been drained and have begun to burn. The Irkutsk energy industry still wants to reduce the level [of water.]'

The issue for the hydroelectric plant is that it depends on low levels of water in the lake, and if it rises too quickly, the pumps are rendered useless.

Keeping the levels low allows for parcelling of reserves based on demand, creating an impasse. Arnold Tulokhonov, the Federation Council member representing Buryatia, has appealed to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to reduce the flow through the power plant from 1,300 cubic metres per second to 1,100 cubic metres per second.

State of emergency declared as Baikal falls to lowest level in 60 years

Сoncerns about future water supplies. Picture: The Siberian Times

This would allow a greater flow into water supplies without further impacting on the lake levels, which are already perilously close to the 456metre minimum decreed by Russian Government. If flow through the power plant is not reduced, the only way to remedy the situation would be to lower levels in the lake further – a move that could arguably worsen the crisis.

The government in Irkutsk Oblast last month called for such an increased discharge because they feared not being able to provide for Angarsk by spring 2015.

But officials in Buryatia, in eastern Siberia, are against lowering the lake’s level below 456metres, saying it would have a negative impact on the endangered omul fish.

There are also potential environmental impacts on wildlife living there, with estimates saying that damage alone could cost one billion roubles (£9.1million).

Now Greenpeace Russia has called for a feasibility study about the consequences of lowering the water before any decision is taken.

State of emergency declared as Baikal falls to lowest level in 60 years 
The government is to decide to drain Baikal temporarily to ease the water crisis. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Programme director Ivan Blokov said: 'The problem looks very serious at first glance, but as far as we know there have been no thorough studies as of yet. Perhaps, the probability of catastrophic consequences of the reduction of water levels and the destruction of the lake is not very high.

'A sharp change in water levels in Lake Baikal happened several decades ago. Its implications lingered for several decades and some remain visible until now. The current reduction of water levels will definitely have negative implications and the only question is their degree'.

Thought to be 25 million years old, Lake Baikal stretches for 400 miles through south-eastern Siberia, north of the Mongolian border. It contains 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater reserves and in places is said to be about 1,700 metres deep. Representatives from the hydroelectric plant have declined to comment on the situation, but insisted the company is complying with all legislation.

The government will meet next week to decide whether Baikal should be allowed to be temporarily drained further to ease the water crisis.

Comments (1)

Here we go again...another natural wonder but guess what man and his greed enters the equation...
Nancy, Isle of Man
25/01/2015 06:57

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