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Newsletter and Technical Publications
Freshwater Management Series No. 3

Proceedings of International Symposium on Building Partnerships
between Citizens and Local governments for Sustainable Lake Management


NON-GOVERNMENTAL AND STATE ACTION AND THE PROTECTION OF LAKE BAIKAL

Jennie Sutton1 and Mikhail Matkhonov2

1Co-chairperson, Baikal Environmental Wave, 664033 P.O.Box 21, Irkutsk, Russian Federation
E-mail: Sutton@baikalwave.eu.org
2Chairman of Sub-committee, Irkutsk Regional Legislature, Regional Legislative Assembly (Duma), 1A Lenin Street, Irkutsk, Russian Federation

ABSTRACT

The impact of human activities on Lake Baikal increased dramatically over the last half century beginning with the construction of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Dam in 1956, the construction of two pulp mills (1966, 1973), logging, development of industry in the Selenga and Angara basins, and the construction of the Baikal-Amur Railway in the mid 1970s. It was plans in the 1950s to build the Baikalsk pulp mill that sparked off the grassroots environmental movement, led by scientists, to save the lake. Later, as a result of constant pressure on the authorities, steps began to be taken to improve protection of its unique ecosystems. A turning point was marked by a severe epidemic amongst the seal population in 1987, when thousands of seals died. A State Decree in 1987 on measures to preserve Baikal marked the beginning of progressive tightening of legislation. Since then different plans have been challenged or approved by non-governmental organisations in a tense process of developing laws and taking action to ensure a decrease in human impact on the lake. The enormity of Baikal and its basin necessitates interaction between NGOs and state authorities at all levels - local, regional, and national. The quality of these relations varies. Examples are given of concrete projects of 'Baikal Environmental Wave'.

BACKGROUND

Figure 1: Baikalsk pulpmill (Oliver Ortner)

In the Baikal region, the first steps towards democracy were made in the late 1980s at the height of the Soviet Union's 'perestroika' by scientists and ordinary people who were concerned about the fate of Lake Baikal. The seeds of this 'Baikal Movement', as it was called, had been sewn in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s by a few scientists and writers who stuck their necks out and made public warnings about the threats looming over the lake. The main danger at that time was seen to be a pulp mill at the town of Baikalsk on the southern shores of the lake. The mill went into operation in 1966 despite the unprecedented protests. Eight years later a second mill, at Selenginsk on the lake's largest tributary, started up. People who knew Baikal and the Baikal region well understood that the presence of pulp mills would not only mean pollution by huge volumes of waste water and air emissions, but would also increased logging in the watershed and the floating of logs down tributaries and over the lake itself in precarious rafts. All these factors would have an unforeseeable impact on the lake's delicate ecosystems. As always, there were two camps of scientists: those supporting the official line, and those whose understanding of the potential loss did not allow them to be silent even at the risk of seriously damaging their careers and perhaps even much more. Amongst them was Grigory Galazii, first director of the Baikal Limnological Station, later to become the Limnological Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, that was set up to study the lake.

The pulp mills were not the only threat. The 1950s and '60s saw the intensive development of agriculture in the lands around the lake, with a considerable increase in the use of pesticides in the Baikal watershed. The mid-1970s had seen the building of the Baikal-Amur railway, that runs alongside Baikal at its northernmost tip, that caused large-scale disturbance of land and a significant increase in the input of minerals and organic substances into the lake (Tarasova et al.). This was accompanied by a sharp rise in the population in settlements adjacent to the lake, without adequate waste water treatment facilities. By the '80s, the Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude industrial complexes, including some of the most polluting industries - chemical, aluminium, and petrochemical - had been developed, adding to air and water pollution.

As a result of constant pressure on the authorities, steps began to be taken to improve protection of Baikal's unique ecosystems. In 1986, an additional Nature Reserve and two National Parks were established in three large areas bordering the lake.

However in 1987, a severe epidemic amongst Baikal's seal population, in which thousands died, seemed to mark the fulfilment of all the fears that had been expressed for the lake. The epidemic followed major accidents at the Baikalsk pulp mill with large discharges of untreated waste water into Baikal. This was definitely a turning point. A Decree of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in April 1987, established a number of important measures designed to protect the lake. Unfortunately, only some of them were implemented. The shipping of logs in rafts over Baikal was stopped, for example, as was the floating of logs down Baikal's tributaries, but strict zones were not implemented.

The years since then have been marked by a constant tussle between those parties interested in preserving the industrial status quo and those anxious to put in force tight laws to protect Baikal. When the lake was included in the UNESCO List of World (Natural) Heritage Sites the IUCN report described the state of conservation of Baikal as being 'good'. This, however, is certainly not the result of human care, but rather because of the lake's cold waters and great size and volume, and the surrounding mountains and cliffs which mean that much of its shores are relatively inaccessible. No one knows how much Baikal can take before its ecosystems decline to the point of no return. We only know that already serious damage has been done. This year an IUCN mission visited the lake to assess the possible need to include the lake on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

Changes are being observed in the lake's delicate ecosystems. So far, most impact has been on the southern basin. It is reported that the hydro-chemical character of the lake has been disturbed, and that changes have occurred in the cycles of development of endemic phytoplankton (Tarasova et al. 1998). One significant indicator is a change in the species composition of phytoplankton with a decline in native species and increase in more common species that are found in other Siberian freshwater bodies (Izmestieva et al. 2001). These were formerly met only in shallow bays, but seldom in Baikal's open waters. Growth rates of fish have fallen and there has been a deterioration in their physiological characteristics (Tarasova et al. 1998). High concentrations of E. coli bacteria are now found along the coast of the southern basin making it inadvisable to drink water straight from the lake in these parts. Finally, analyses of the lake's organisms, from the most minute up to the Baikal seal, at the top of the lake's food web, have shown high levels of dioxins and PCBs. Indeed, the levels in the seals can be compared with those found in ringed seal in parts of the Canadian Arctic and in seals in the Baltic Sea at the time of the epidemic of the late 1980s that killed thousands of animals (Tarasova et al. 1998).

The late '80s were times of meetings, marches, and protests before the economic crisis of 1989- 92. They were also times of hope that newly and democratically elected deputies would take decisions that would radically decrease the pressure on the lake by, among other things, closing down the Baikalsk mill and replacing it with a furniture factory. Indeed, many good environmental laws were passed in the early '90s. At least they seem good, until someone tries to put them to the test and discovers that they are full of loopholes. But the law is the law. And these new laws gave ordinary people the right to a healthy natural environment, and the right to defend that right.

Figure 2: Pribaikalsky National Park (Oliver Ortner)

PRESENT SITUATION - THE LAW

In April 1999, after something like ten years of delay and the writing of some six draft laws, Grigory Galazii, veteran leader of the fight to save Baikal and then Deputy to the Federal Duma, finally saw through the passing of the law 'On the Protection of Lake Baikal', a year before his death. Practically all drafts of this law were indeed widely discussed at the regional level, but unfortunately the final text leaves much to be desired. The effectiveness of the law will depend on a number of by-laws. Practice has shown that, as it stands today without these by-laws, it is ineffective in protecting the lake. The by-laws should have been passed a year ago, but they are still being delayed. The reasons for this are not explained, other than the changes brought about by the submerging of the State Committee for Environmental Protection into the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The situation with the Baikal law can be summarised as follows.

  • NGOs and individual deputies pressed the legislature to pass an effective law.
  • The industrial lobby pressed the legislature to pass a law that nevertheless protects their interests. The result was delays until… an incomplete law was passed with many loopholes.
  • While NGOs press executive authorities to implement the law and be strict with any new project, the industrial lobby presses the executive authorities not to use the law against them.
  • The executive authorities often 'turn a blind eye' and let violations pass.
  • The judicial authorities often interpret the law in favour of industry, mostly for social reasons, or delaying tactics are used (law suit against the Baikalsk mill - Yagodin).
  • The industrial lobby uses the depressed economy and the threat of unemployment to support its case.
  • The NGOs are strengthened by the position of the world community in the form of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and IUCN.

Meanwhile, a programme is being prepared for the modernisation of the Baikalsk pulp mill with the approval of both local and federal authorities. Basically, the aim is to reduce the impact on the lake by 'closing the loop', if this is possible, and cutting out chlorine bleaching over a period of about four years. For this, investment is needed.

NGOs ask the question, who wants to invest in a pulp mill on a unique lake and World Heritage Site that will have to transport timber over enormous distances (the average distance in 1998 was 1,400 kilometers - Jaakko Poyry Consulting), that is if it isn't to impoverish the Baikal watershed itself by logging closer to the mill? Wouldn't it be better to retrain the local population, stimulate small businesses, encourage investment in a really alternative but smaller, though possibly less profitable, enterprise, and perhaps motivate part of the population to move to other towns? One should always bear in mind that any chemical plant and its waste products on the shores of Baikal will always pose a potential and real threat because of the high level of seismic activity at the lake.

Everybody agrees that something should be done as soon as possible.

The latest Federal by-law supporting the law 'On the Protection of Lake Baikal' is called the 'List of activities banned in the central zone of the Lake Baikal natural territory'. But it is something of a mystery. Quite rightly, it bans both the burning and the accumulation of waste. But what is the mill going to do with all its waste? According to the Finnish consulting firm, Jaakko Poyry, up to 40 tons of sludge can be produced daily. At present much of this is being burnt (with the inevitable production of dioxins), and not even for the production of energy. The new project envisages continued burning, though it is not clear how this will be possible in view of the new law. The new law also bans the discharge of waste water into the lake.

The passing of another two by-laws is being unjustifiably delayed. These concern ecological zoning and standards of 'acceptable impact' on Baikal's ecosystems, both critical to protection of the lake. In fact, three zones were established in 1990 in a document known as 'TerKSOP'. Although this has not been repealed, the zones are now being re-established!

Such delays always work in favour of those parties that want to get their foot in the door before it closes, as it were. Last year there was a scandal over explorations for gas and oil in the river Selenga delta, until the public prosecutor of Buryatia put a stop to it, indicating the illegality of the 25-year licence that had been issued by the Committee for Natural Resources of Buryatia. Some time before, the project had been slipped through a state environmental impact assessment with violations. The role of NGOs in bringing the situation to light was vital. Now, with the passing of the 'List of banned activities', such exploration in the central zone is clearly illegal. Now the NGO that led the action has been attacked in the Buryat press as being an agent of Uncle Sam.

This situation illustrates the typical character of relations between the State and NGOs at a regional level when the case involves big-money interests.

According to Russian law, any project (including a draft law) that might have an impact on the environment has to pass a State environmental impact assessment. The organised public - NGOs or any initiative group - have the right to conduct an independent impact assessment. In the case of these by-laws, although interested parties can put in suggestions as to what should or shouldn't be included in them in letters to Ministries or Duma Deputies, no public hearings are being held. All the lobbying is going on behind the scenes.

Up until now, the Regional Administration has been using a loophole in the Federal law 'On the Protection of the Environment' that allows state environmental agencies to issue enterprises with 'temporarily agreed limits to discharges and emissions'. In this way enterprises do not pay for their impact on the environment to the full extent. These temporary limits are renewed each year when the Regional Administration, Regional Committee for Natural Resources, and industrial enterprises join hands and cement their partnership. In the case of the Baikalsk mill, it has been carrying on polluting the lake and making good profits, while paying nominal sums for using Baikal's unique waters and sending them back into the lake polluted. Why close down such a profitable business on such good terms, one asks?

 

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