Russia’s Lake Baikal Threatened by Mongolian Hydropower Plants

IRKUTSK, Russia

Russian government officials and environmentalists have petitioned the World Bank’s Inspection Panel to defer funding for a series of hydropower plants in Mongolia, out of concern that the projects could pose a threat to Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake.

The Mongolian plants would be built on the Selenge River, the largest tributary feeding the Siberian lake, as well as the Orkhon, Egyin-Gol, Tola, and Delgermuren rivers.

“Projects criticized by environmentalists should be stopped while there is no discussion in Mongolia and Russia about the cumulative impacts of planned dams on the ecosystem,” said the petition, which was co-signed by international environmental group Greenpeace as well as members of communities iving in the Selenge River Basin.

The petition expressed concerns about degradation of the lake; disruption of the river flow and human and animal movements; degradation of critical habitats; loss of crop and pasture land; and displacement of local families.

Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology had expressed concerns about the project to the World Bank in March 2013, calling for greater consultation with Russian organizations.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has called for a monitoring mission to investigate and analyze potential environmental impacts of the Mongolian hydropower projects. Lake Baikal is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.

The lake’s water levels have dropped to their lowest levels in decades, putting at risk water supply to local residents and livelihoods of fishermen, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported this week.

Regional hydropower company Irkutskenergo has been blamed for contributing to the problem through "excessive drainage of the lake's water in spring and summer 2014."

Baikal has also been threatened by increasing pollution. Russian ecologists warned last fall that the lake was “turning into a swamp” as a result of the tons of liquid waste from tourist camps and water transport vehicles that is being dumped into the water body.

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