Killing Lake Baikal for cheap electricity

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) - The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is studying reasons behind a drop in the water level of Lake Baikal (Eastern Siberia). Government-appointed inspectors led by deputy head of the Russian environmental watchdog agency Rosprirodnadzor Oleg Mitvol are conducting an administrative inquiry to the same effect.

Baikal started sinking last October. Its water surface (31,500 square km) is going down with a speed of 12 cm-15cm per month. Experts note that for the time being the situation is not desperate. But the process continues and by March-April the critical point (456.28 meters under the Pacific system of heights) may be overcome.

The intensity of sinking is already affecting the life of the lake's bio system. Spawning ground of unique Baikal fish (27 species of it are endemic, like omul and oilfish) are drying out. Birds are dying because of water freezing. They are particularly threatened in the flow of the Angara River, which hosts a key ornithological spot. Normally, the place where Angara flows into its riverbed never froze, and this is why birds settled there. But if the water level sharply drops, the Angara flow is covered with ice, and birds are dying by thousands. Liya Sandanova, an expert at the Russian Regional Environmental Center, recalls: "I remember how the river level dropped so much that the Angara flow froze and environmentalists had to save the birds."

The environmentalists are laying the blame for the current situation with hydraulic power engineers. "During the preliminary inquiry, it transpired that a year ago, in the fall-winter of 2006, the level of the lake was unprecedentedly high. Apparently, somebody decided to release more water to the Angara cascade of hydropower stations, which belongs to the Irkutskenergo company," Mitvol told RIA Novosti. "There is no other explanation for a 17% increase in electricity generation in the last three months. As a result, the lake started sinking in the fall although 2007 saw no droughts or serious climatic aberrations."

What is the cost of releasing more water? There is a federal law on the protection of Lake Baikal and a resolution of the Russian government on limits of its water level in connection with economic and other activities. The Weather Monitoring Center is also against reduction of the lake's water level beneath the established limits. The climate is changeable and unpredictable. What if the next summer is too dry?

But if you risk, violate the bans and steal a little of water from the lake (it has boundless 23,000 cubic km!), you will be awarded with impressive amounts of free electricity. The temptation is too great. "Irkutskenergo received a lot of cheap electricity by releasing huge amounts of water in the first half of 2007, and we have faced a difficult situation at this unique lake," Mitvol summed up.

The inquiry is going on. The inspectors are trying to find out how much water was released through the Angara flow to the Irkutsk hydropower station during 2006-2007. They have demanded information on Irkutskenergo electricity generation in 2007. An inquiry has been sent to the government as well - it is not allowed without a special permit from the government to lower the level of Lake Baikal beneath 456.28 meters (under the Pacific system of heights). Experts are also studying the climatic factor - the weather map in the regions adjacent to the lake, and contributing to the flow.

But the disappearance of water from Lake Baikal is not likely to be explained by the whims of nature. This is what Deputy Director of the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Arkady Tishkov, thinks on this score: "A big tributary, the Selenga River flowing from Mongolia, can influence the level of Lake Baikal, as well as precipitation. But this will not result in a crisis situation - the Baikal system is inertial and has a big natural margin of safety. I think that a drop in its level has been largely caused by hydroelectric engineers that arbitrarily change the release of the lake's water."

Letting water out of the lake, as if it were an ordinary pond, hydroelectric engineers are receiving huge profits that allow them to pay any fines. "Each centimeter of the Baikal water - a third of cubic kilometer - produces 200 megawatts of electricity," Mitvol explained. "A considerable amount of energy generated by the Angara cascade of hydropower stations is exported, primarily to China. If some officials were given free rein, they would exhaust the whole of Lake Baikal."

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

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