Siberia’s tug of war over Lake Baikal’s water

Villagers struggle to cope as world’s largest freshwater lake drops to its lowest level in 60 years.

Correction19 May 2015
An earlier version of this story accidentally misnamed ecologist Marina Rikhvanova, a leading environmentalist who received a Green Nobel prize in 2008. Al Jazeera apologises for the error.

Ranzhurovo, Russia – Nikolay Penoyev stands in the middle of an empty field blanketed in snow. Next to him on the barren ground rests a speedboat.

“This boat is meant to be on water,” Penoyev says, pointing to the grounded vessel. “We’re standing in the middle of a river. It used to be 40 metres wide.”

Penoyev is chief of Ranzhurovo, a Siberian village stricken by a water crisis. That Ranzhurovo is on the shores of Lake Baikal, home to a quarter of the world’s fresh surface water, makes the situation all the more perplexing.

The water level of Lake Baikal – the world’s deepest and oldest freshwater lake and a UNESCO world heritage site – has reached its lowest point in 60 years, plummeting below the minimum level designated by the government as critical.

Last year, hydroelectric dams were allowed to increase their release of water, but as precipitation fell well short of the predicted amount, water levels in the lake dropped more than 40cm. 

“Everyone was expecting high water levels in Baikal and were scared of the floods. So in the spring more water was removed from the Irkutsk hydro plant than in the previous year,” says Sergey Shapaev – an ecologist from Ulan Ude, about 6,000km east of Moscow – who monitors Lake Baikal’s water levels.

In January, the government declared a state of emergency in the region surrounding the lake.

Controversially, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev executed an order in February allowing the temporary reduction of Baikal’s water level by an additional 20cm below its previous level. 

Since then, the lake’s level has dropped 10cm below the critical limit of 456m set by the government to prevent damage to the ecosystem, according to Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

The ability to draw water from the lake even after it fell below the critical level, allows energy company Irkutskenergo’s hydroelectric plant, situated on the Angara river – the only river to flow out of Baikal, rather than into it – to continue generating power.

“For the hydroelectric plant to continue functioning, the government has allowed them to lower the level of Baikal,” Shapaev says. 

The Angara is the only river to flow out of Baikal, providing water to the Irkutsk region [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera] 
The Angara is the only river to flow out of Baikal, providing water to the Irkutsk region [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera] 

Hard life for villagers

The demands of the hydroelectric plant leaves villagers around Baikal on the losing side of a tug of war for the lake’s water.

“There are about 44 villages on the shores of Baikal Lake. People living there take water from wells that are connected with the Baikal water level. When the Baikal water level goes down there is no water in the wells,” says Shapaev.

This is a serious problem for villages such as Ranzhurovo, with only 11 percent of the communities around Baikal having a permanent water supply.

“We’ve had to dig the wells deeper to reach the water, and in other places we’ve had to use an electric pump to draw the water,” Penoyev says.

“Before we deepened the wells, we had special cars delivering water to the village.”

This is made more difficult by the lack of paved roads in Ranzhurovo.

The occasional car passing along the dirt roads, and the frequent barking of stray dogs, is all that break the pristine silence. Standing outside one of the colourful wooden houses, traditional to Russia, is a group of women talking.

Vera, the tallest of them, attempts to draw water from a well for the livestock she raises, displaying the empty bucket that results.

“I’ve lived in this village since childhood, and now that Baikal’s water level has gone down, it’s the first time I’ve seen there’s no water in the well. I don’t know how I can give the cows water,” she says.

“I have an electric pump at home, but it’s hard to use, only draws a small amount of water, and takes a long time to fill a bucket. And sometimes we don’t have electricity so we can’t use it at all.”

Only 11 percent of the communities around Baikal have a permanent water supply [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera]
Only 11 percent of the communities around Baikal have a permanent water supply [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera]

Another stressor on the water level is the removal, over the last 20 years, of large rocks from the bed of the Angara river, mostly illegally, causing its water level to fall a metre near the plant, says Shapaev.

The plant was designed to create power with the river at a higher level than it currently is after the removal of the rocks, but Shapaev says the government and plant owners failed to make an adjustment. 

Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment says Irkutskenergo was working within approved regulations. 

“After the Irkutsk hydro plant was built, the water level of Baikal became one metre higher. The lake became a reservoir and the dam was helping to control water levels,” the government said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.

“This was approved by the Rosvodresurs [Russian water resources] special group, which was created to control the Baikal water level. In 2014, Irkutskenergo followed all the rules of this group very strictly.” 

However, impoverished villagers say the lower levels of the lake have increased the economic strain on their lives.

Ecologists predict the amount of fish will continue to decline along with the water level [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera]
Ecologists predict the amount of fish will continue to decline along with the water level [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera]

Many families in villages around the lake make their livelihoods through fishing. But a combination of the lowered water levels on Baikal and pollution from factories surrounding its banks, has left fish in short supply.

With their horses strapped to wooden ice drills, a group of fishermen from Ranzhurovo walked the animals in circles to cut through thick ice that covers Lake Baikal in the winter months, and cast nets into the frigid water.

A typical fishing trip takes more than eight hours on the lake, with temperatures often dropping below -30 degrees Celsius.

Disappearing fish

For the fishermen, the arduous effort might not be worth it for much longer.

A typical catch for fishermen this winter amounts to a few kilos, enough to net each angler a mere 20 roubles (30 cents) a day.

The amount of fish decreases year by year, they say.

“Low water, little fish, less money,” one fisherman says.

Another fisherman says, “If there’s no fish we’ll go on the ‘Big Road’,” – a Russian euphemism for criminal activity.

It’s unlikely the fish will return in numbers anytime soon, one researcher says.

“We expect that fishermen will get less fish from Baikal,” says Marina Rikhvanova, an ecologist from the Baikal Environmental Wave organisation in Irkutsk, a little more than 5,000km east of Moscow. 

“It will get worse, the water level will be going down even more.”

Rikhvanova told Al Jazeera another problem is that villages on the lake’s banks do not have proper sewage systems and dirty water flows back into Baikal, disrupting the ecosystem and killing fish.

Most villages on the lake's banks don't have systems capable of handling the amount of sewage from increased tourism [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera] 
Most villages on the lake’s banks don’t have systems capable of handling the amount of sewage from increased tourism [Jassim Mater/Al Jazeera] 

Fresh fears

Medvedev signed an order in early March banning production of paper and pulp in the central zone of the Baikal nature reserve, which should alleviate some pollution worries.

But Russia says the biggest threat to Baikal isn’t under its control – because that comes from its neighbour to the south. 

Mongolia plans to build dams for a series of 25 new hydroelectric plants along the Selenga river, the source of half the water that flows into Baikal. The new dams would cut the flow of water, further reducing water levels in the lake.

Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said the building of hydroelectric plants on the Selenga river would “lead to a catastrophic situation for the Baikal ecosystem”. 

“The situation may get worse and probably people living on the banks of Baikal won’t have water at all,” says Rikhvanova. “This is a paradox – the biggest lake in the world and the people living there have no water.”

Source: Al Jazeera