We publish below an interview given by Valentin Stepankov, Deputy Minister for Natural Resources, to Tatiana Sinitsyna, RIA Novosti commentator.
- The Russians residing on the banks of the Amur have received an unwelcome New Year present from the Chinese - a toxic benzene slick. The whole country is watching its progress down the Amur with concern. Have environmentalists expected such a "surprise"?
V.S. - The November 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin, when 100 metric tons of benzene was released into the river, could not have been forecast. But what happened did not come as a great surprise to us. It simply highlighted the environmental problems that exist on the Russian-Chinese border. They could not be solved for a long time, and we realized that things were coming to a head. Perhaps now that we have been put under pressure by the circumstances some progress will be made.
- Transboundary territories often witness tense moments, including of an environmental nature. What are the specifics of the situation on the Chinese border?
V.S. - Russia borders on many states and, of course, different environmental frictions have occasionally arisen in adjacent areas. But all of them could be solved in a civilized way. One can recall an unpleasant incident on the Russian-Lithuanian border, near the Curonian Spit. LUKoil installed a D-6 oil-drilling platform, off the peninsula, on the shelf, which did not appeal to the Lithuanians. We were able to prove their fears were groundless, and things were settled. Our environmental cooperation with the Germans, Finns, Estonians and Kazakhs can be described as exemplary. At the same time Russian-Chinese transboundary territory remains the most environmentally problematic. This has largely been caused by the absence of legal documents on nature preservation issues.
- What do you think are the causes of the present situation?
V.S. - To begin with, our demographic potentials are vastly different: the Chinese population in the border zone greatly outnumbers ours. For example, the banks of the Sungari River, whose catchment area is entirely within the Chinese territory, provide home to 70 million people. After running its course of 1,500 kilometers and collecting all authorized and unauthorized waste from towns and villages along the way, the Sungari empties into the Amur. It is easy to imagine what it brings in its waters. Its runoff makes up about one-third of the Amur waters. Downstream from the Sungari the quality of Amur water deteriorates sharply. In 2004, water in this section of the Amur was classed as polluted in hydrochemical terms, while a year previously it was classed as only moderately polluted. During the floods, Sungari water becomes unsuitable for drinking.
Apart from the demographic misbalance, there is the economic factor: the development of the adjacent Chinese territory is proceeding far more actively than on our side. The inadequate facilities employed to treat industrial and municipal effluents cannot keep up with the rate of economic progress. China has its own environmental laws and services, but its authorities are not in a position to catch every violator red-handed. They can "squeeze" larger plants if they breach nature-protecting laws, but all-inclusive and reliable control is virtually impossible.
- This suggests that the situation may become even worse, doesn't it?
V.S. - Unfortunately, the outlook is not comforting. Monitoring shows that the Amur does not cleanse itself naturally. Transboundary pollution has been detected as far down the river as Khabarovsk, which is 220 kilometers downstream. The Amur's oxygen conditions are deteriorating, and the quantity of suspended and biogenic substances, chlorides and oil products is increasing. Amur fish stocks are being depleted, fish get an unpleasant smell, and unknown diseases have been recorded. We forecasted the deterioration of the situation on the Sungari several years ago. Today it is obvious.
- And how much is the Amur polluted from the Russian side?
V.S. - It must be admitted that the environmental consciousness of the Russians is not up to the mark, either. The Amur is considerably polluted within our territory, although the extent of the Russian negative effect on the river cannot be compared with the Chinese. The treatment facilities in Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 people, cannot be described as model. They are badly designed: the intake draws water from the surface, and uses outdated technologies. Treatment facilities of any city are set to handle "ordinary" polluted water with calculated proportions of some types of impurities. But if a man-induced disaster occurs in China, as it did, or someone releases pesticides into the river, which also happens from time to time, we know nothing about it in Russia. We have repeatedly suggested to the Chinese that we inform each other when such incidents occur, but they have not agreed. Khabarovsk is planning to switch from the Amur to the Tunguska and other rivers and to underground sources for water. The situation forces us to take cardinal measures and invest in vital water projects. Trying to expiate their sins, the Chinese erected a dam and brought hundreds of tons of activated carbon. But these are makeshift measures and will not save the situation. The general background is deteriorating all the time, and there are no guarantees that new spills may not happen.
- Are there international norms of conduct in border territories? Why isn't it possible to agree with the Chinese on a civilized course of action?
V.S. - We are continuously striving for dialog, mutual monitoring, and conclusion of agreements. We have several intergovernmental agreements with China on environmental protection, some of which were signed back in 1994. But these documents do not provide the instruments for solving the entire package of accumulated problems. The adoption of the Sino-Russian Good-Neighborly Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation (FCT) on February 28, 2002 has expanded vistas for contractual opportunities. During his visit to Beijing on October 14-15, 2005 President Vladimir Putin signed a bilateral plan of action for 2005-2008 to implement the FCT.
But though the dialog has intensified, solution of many urgent issues is beyond the power of the operating Sino-Russian working groups. Take, for instance, the drafting of an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the protection and rational use of transboundary waters; control over the diversion of part of the trans-boundary Irtysh run-off to the desert areas of the Xinjiang-Uigur autonomous region; protection of rare animals, control over illegal exports of animals and plants from the border areas of Russia; control over unsanctioned discharge of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals to the Amur River and other border rivers, environmental assessment of projects, which have an impact on the transboundary territories.
The Russian side has drafted a protocol to the intergovernmental agreement on the formation and institutional foundations of a mechanism for regular bilateral meetings of the heads of state, and also on the establishment of a sub-commission on environmental protection and the use of natural resources. The sides are planning to sign the protocol, and conduct the first session of the sub-commission in February-March 2006. Representatives of the Amur River regions will certainly be included on this sub-commission. The main goal of the negotiations is to prepare for the signing of the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the protection and rational use of transboundary waters. I'd like to point out in this context that Russia unilaterally initiated the document a long time ago and submitted it for China's consideration many times (1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004) by diplomatic and other channels, but Beijing has always found excuses to avoid addressing the problem. We hope that the recent disaster will influence China's attitude.
- China declared right away its readiness to reimburse Russia for the damage, and is already taking some steps. What is the scale of damage, at least in tentative estimates?
V.S. - China has officially apologized for the incident and promised to do everything possible to minimize the damage. The Chinese are even ready to work together with Russian experts. Five-profile pollution monitoring is carried out twice a day. The waste of Chinese thermal power stations is used to dilute the polluted waters. The reduced levels of water reservoirs precipitate the flow. The Chinese are drafting a project to assess the damage and restore the ecology of the Sungari, and have signed an information exchange agreement with the administration of the Khabarovsk Territory. The latter is a very important instrument. At present the concentration of benzene in the river has dropped but it won't disappear: some of it will turn into ice, and the rest will become bottom sediment. It is not possible to quickly assess the damage and present the bill to China. So, it is too early to talk about the amount of compensation. The dangerous slick has to complete its course before bottom sediment and stream biota may be analyzed. The Jewish Autonomous Region has fish processing plants, and spawning backwaters. Toxic chemicals are certain to get there. In spring benzene-polluted ice will move to the Sea of Okhotsk, which is rich in herring and salmon. To sum up, the true amount of ecological damage will only reveal itself in the long-term, and is very difficult to estimate fully.
- Is the water problem on the Sino-Russian border limited to the Amur pollution, or are there other aspects as well?
V.S. - The second sore spot is the Irtysh River. It starts in China, which accounts for a third of its length, then runs through Kazakhstan, and ends on Russian territory, where it flows into the Ob River. The Irtysh water flow is a very complex problem, and the Chinese position is again a block to its solution. Way back in 1997 China started using part of its flow to irrigate its dry areas. When Minister of Natural Resources Yury Trutnev visited Beijing last April, the Chinese side officially specified for the first time that it was going to divert about 20% of the flow. This is yet another ecological challenge for Russia, because our Omsk Region wholly depends on the Irtysh River. But without an environmental agreement with China, we don't have any instruments to influence the Chinese either during emergencies or in easily predictable situations. Today, Beijing is ready to discuss the problem with Russia and Kazakhstan on a bilateral basis. But both the Kazakhs and we believe that the Irtysh problem should be resolved on a trilateral basis.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.