Will Baikal become ocean?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) - On the summer's last Sunday, Russia is celebrating the Day of Lake Baikal.

This tradition was started in 1999 by the public organization Baikal Environmental Wave. By that time, it was already a UNESCO World Heritage site as a masterpiece of nature and the global strategic freshwater resource.

Baikal is flanked by the Republic of Buryatia, the Irkutsk and Chita regions, where celebrations of its holiday are particularly glamorous.

Usually, lakes disappear from the face of the Earth in 10,000-15,000 years because of sediments. But Lake Baikal, which emerged on a tectonic crack 25 million years ago, does not reveal a single sign of ageing. Baikal has passed the test of evolution, which prompted scientists to think that it is not simply a lake, but an embryo of an ocean. Baikal shores are moving apart at a speed of two centimeters a year, while its depth reaches 1,620 meters. It is possible that in the future Baikal will become an ocean if its "career" is not ruined by people.

Baikal's crescent-shaped stone bowl with an area of 31,500 square km contains 23 billion tons of water, or 20% of the world's freshwater reserves. Nature has concealed this amazing water reservoir in the depth of south-eastern Siberia, amidst mountains and the taiga.

Local people gave different names to the lake. The Mongols called it Big Water, while the Chinese referred to it as the Northern Sea. The Russian trailblazers used the Evenki word "lamu," which means sea. But the Turkic word Baikal - Rich Lake - has ultimately prevailed. Its eco-world is truly unique. The lake has 1,550 species of fauna and more than 1,000 varieties of flora.

The great lake provided the local people with food, water and spirit. This is reflected in the now traditional scenarios of Lake Baikal celebrations with folklore performances, scientific lectures, verses and songs about the lake. But the gist of the holiday is not to allow the public to forget about the dangerous problems that are slowly destroying the lake.

During evolution Baikal's species have got used to certain conditions. Its main care-taker is an endemic epishura, a miniscule relative of the shrimp. Every year it filters half a meter layer of surface water and provides it with oxygen.

In the 20th century, the lake's fragile system came under threat. At the threshold of the 1960s, the Kremlin decided to build a pulp-and-paper plant in the south of Baikal on the initiative of the then leader Nikita Khrushchev. The authors of the project pragmatically approached the unique lake as a source of super-pure water, which was badly needed for the production of super-hard cellulose for supersonic aviation and the national space program. Although the plant did not serve these patriotic goals - they were achieved through a different solution - its pulp-and-paper production remained on site.

Many public figures insisted on shutting it down, but to no avail. Academician Nikolai Zhavoronkov persuaded Khrushchev that the plant's discharge would be cleaner than the water drunk in the Kremlin. He did not cheat - Baikal water (42 million cubic meters a year) returns to the lake after production cycle in good condition up to this day.

But its purity is not that important. Industrial plants are not built on unique lakes anywhere in the world. For the time being, Baikal's powerful natural potential can still resist negative influence, but the damage has already been made. The epishura is showing signs of degradation - its gills and crust are affected by chlorine, which still gets into the lake, albeit in very small amounts. The epishura now cleans 7.5% less of water than before. In other words, it fails to clean 4.5 cubic kilometers of water.

There is only one way of dealing with the disaster - remove the plant. But how can this be done? What to do about a city with a population of 17,000, which has emerged around this plant? Its sewage also goes into the lake. The solution to this problem requires political will and large sums of money, which the state has not found up to this day.

Baikal became a UNESCO World Heritage site nine years ago. Now it may get on the World Heritage in Danger List. UNESCO experts have for years criticized the Russian authorities for doing nothing about Lake Baikal.

People in Russia are also worried about the lake. This is why the anthem to Baikal has a sad tinge.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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