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
2Chairman of Sub-committee, Irkutsk Regional Legislature, Regional Legislative Assembly
(Duma), 1A Lenin Street, Irkutsk, Russian Federation
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'.
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
- 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
- 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
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?