Modern ills threaten ancient, wondrous Lake Baikal LAKE BAIKAL: A NATURAL WONDER UNDER SIEGE

October 31, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

ENKHALUK, Russia -- Deep in Asian Russia, thousands of miles away from the grime and tumult of Moscow, one of the world's most splendid natural resources is slipping into danger. The means to save it are at hand, thanks to a few passionate scientists, but in these troubled times the political will to use those means is shaky.

The place is Baikal. It is rimmed by dry, sandy dunes, surrounded by the cedar forests of the Siberian taiga, home of the shamans' unsettling sacred places, overlooked by the deep folded mountains of the Ulan Burgasi.

Here is a separate world of blue water that stands alone among the lakes of the Earth: with one-fifth of the world's fresh water and maybe 70 percent of the world's clean fresh water. It is so vast that no single sweep of the eye can take it all in.

Baikal is home to the world's only freshwater seals and 1,800 other unique species; to cascading mountain rivers and eerily barren scrubland. It contains freshwater sponges and unique small fish so fatty they will literally melt in your hand. Birds flock here from the Arctic north and from the Gobi desert to the south. From the great mountains that ring the lake tumble rivers so rich in oxygen that Baikal can support types of fish and plants that could grow nowhere else.

In places the water is still so clear that a new 20-ruble coin tossed in from an old fishing boat will glint and glimmer in the descending light until it is little more than a speck far below.

Lake Baikal is a mile deep, deeper than any other lake in the world -- and it is only because of its immense size and depth that, for decades, people willfully refused to see a catastrophe in the making.

But the blue inland sea that stretches along a 400-mile rift valley in southeastern Siberia has been assaulted by overgrazing, sewage discharges, tourist development and, most of all, industrial air pollution from ill-maintained factories.

Desire, but no action

For 30 years, the Soviet government pursued a policy here of heavy industrialization, logging and quarrying. Thousands of acres of forest around the lake were cleared for cultivation, and in the 1960s, a huge cellulose plant was built on the southern shore, in the town of Baikalsk. That plant was designed to make tire cords by a method that even then was growing obsolete.

Today everything should be in place to turn all that around. Popular sentiment here is strongly in favor of protecting the lake. An innovative interregional commission -- with nearly dictatorial powers over land use around Baikal -- has been approved, applauded and paid for. But, caught in political rivalries and jealousies, it has been unable to get started, and in fact has never convened.

So the factory in Baikalsk still makes obsolete tire cords. Various plans to convert it to other uses, such as furniture-making, have so far come to nothing. A new proposal would turn it into a water-purification and bottling plant, with the aim of selling the lake water that until now it has so recklessly polluted. But the money for such a conversion is nowhere in sight.

In effect, no one knows what to do with a giant industrial plant that employs 15,000 people, except to keep it going.

Environmental awareness (and a declining economy) have ensured that there will be no more big industrial projects around the lake, but scientists say the status quo is dangerous enough.

For the children

"It's impossible to leave it as it is; otherwise we shall lose Baikal," says Grigori Gelazi, a biologist who 30 years ago first raised the alarm over the lake's future. "Our children -- and mankind -- will not forgive us."

While Russia's turmoil today presents an obstacle to action, it also offers an opportunity for real change.

The dedicated scientists and their allies who are trying to save Baikal are led by a man of quiet, patient doggedness, persistent in the face of a marked lack of resources and an abundance of political posturing. His name is Sergei Shapkhaev.

Mr. Shapkhaev, an ethnic Buryat from Ulan Ude, was coordinator of a joint U.S.-Russian project to devise a land-use plan for the entire Baikal territory. Now he is one of just two people selected to run the staff of the potentially powerful Baikal Commission. That commission was created, on paper, in December, and it has a $450,000-a-year commitment from the U.S. State Department. But so far it is an empty shell.

"He has no people, no telephones, no planes, not even a bicycle," says a geologist friend, Eduard Zhbanov. "Anyone else would have just quit."

"Well, people support me," replies Mr. Shapkhaev, "and that makes me enthusiastic. Obstacles only make me more enthusiastic."

A web of woes

Baikal has the capacity to absorb a river of enthusiasm because of the intricate nature of its problems, both environmental and political. Mr. Shapkhaev and his colleagues have looked as far afield as the Adirondacks and Lake Tahoe for inspiration.

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