Lake Baikal Crisis: Chinese Activity a Handy Scapegoat for Russian Government Inaction

Via Future Directions International, a look at Russia and China’s collective impact on Lake Baikal:

Lake Baikal is the oldest, deepest and the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. Located in south-eastern Siberia, the lake is 25 million years old, 1,642 metres deep and contains 23,615 cubic kilometres of water (one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water). It hosts a huge variety of endemic species, which, in 1996, led to UNESCO declaring the lake a World Heritage site. Furthermore, the lake supports the existence of the 44 villages that surround it. Villagers draw water from wells connected to the lake and a hydroelectric plant on the Angara River (which flows from Lake Baikal) provides energy to the region.


Despite its importance, Lake Baikal is also the site of an increasingly grave environmental crisis, due to climate change and human activity. Siberia has warmed faster than almost anywhere else, by up to 3?C in some places; almost triple the global average. As Siberia has warmed, so has Lake Baikal, which has had profound consequences for the biodiversity of the lake. The temperature of the lake has increased and seasonal ice cover has fallen. As a result, the microscopic algae (known as diatoms) that form the bottom of the food chain in the lake have declined rapidly. This, in turn, is threatening the lake’s plankton and fish and also the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal.

Human activity, on and around it, has further imperilled Lake Baikal. Fish stocks have declined precipitously, with stocks of omul fish halving in the last 15 years. Endemic sponges have also died and suffocating algal blooms have rapidly increased, due to increased pollution and high levels of wastewater entering the lake. The Selenga River, the lake’s largest tributary, has become polluted by mining waste from Mongolia and industrial pollution from within Siberia. As a result, heavy metals, such as cadmium, have been detected in the waters of Lake Baikal and it is likely that heavy metal contamination will increase.

Locally, much of the blame for the Lake’s decline has fallen on Chinese tourists and business interests. While it is true that increasing tourism has put pressure on the lake and Chinese businesses and hotels are present in the area, this narrative is not entirely accurate. Only 210,000 of Lake Baikal’s 1.6 million visitors were from overseas in 2017. Of those foreign visitors, two-thirds were Chinese.

Chinese businesses attempting to exploit the lake have often had the tacit support of national and local leaders. The construction of a (Chinese-financed) controversial water-bottling plant was halted, pending an investigation, after a petition opposing its construction gained nearly a million signatures. Before the emergence of significant public criticism, however, regional authorities had welcomed the presence of the plant. Vladimir Putin, who has called attention to the crisis on the lake, was also responsible for re-opening a paper mill near Lake Baikal, two years after it was shut down for polluting the lake (the mill closed again in 2013).

The Russian government has also been responsible for lowering environmental standards around the lake. In March, the Russian Natural Resources Ministry drafted new amendments to a document that establishes the maximum levels of dangerous substances permissible in Lake Baikal. The amendments drastically increased the permitted amount of substances, such as nitrates, which already contribute to the lake’s growing pollution problem. The Russian Government has also cracked down on environmental activists, including a group campaigning to protect Lake Baikal.

While Chinese tourists and businesses are an easy scapegoat for the degradation of Lake Baikal, the lake’s environmental crisis will continue for as long as the Russian Government continues to allow it to happen.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 at 10:19 am and is filed under China, Russia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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