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


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.

They worked closely with a planning firm called Davis Associates of Wadhams, N.Y. Now everyone calls their report the Davis project -- and among the opponents they have stirred are resentful Russian nationalists.

The report calls for tough land-use controls, even the return of some land now under cultivation to pastureland. It covers an immense, 115,000-square-mile territory, which is just a shade larger than the combined areas of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

It includes the watershed of the lake and what the planners call the "airshed" -- the upwind source of most of the air pollution that is attacking Baikal.

Pipeline of pollution

The worst problems come from the Angara River valley. The Angara is the only outlet of the lake. From Irkutsk 270 miles to Bratsk, its valley has become a "pipeline" of industry -- and of pollution. The water discharges flow downstream, away from Baikal, but the smoke from the factories is blown back up the valley and eastward over the lake by the prevailing winds. A rich brown smear always hangs in the air here.

Mr. Zhbanov says the worst acid-rain pollution lies in a belt along the eastern shore of the lake, including what many believe to be its most spectacular feature, the Barguzin valley.

Pollution evident

A small shallow lake near there is heavily polluted by mercury, phenols and oil byproducts, Mr. Zhbanov says. Those same chemicals are clearly also falling into Baikal. If the lake were only 60 feet deep instead of 5,000, he says, it would be gone by now.

Already there are problems with unhealthy fish, trees ravaged by pollution and infection, water in parts of the lake that is no longer suitable for drinking.

Mr. Shapkhaev and his allies contend that, with Russia in transition to a free-enterprise economy, now is the best and perhaps last opportunity to safeguard Baikal -- before it becomes one more disastrous legacy of the old Soviet system.

"We need nothing less than a Baikal Ministry," says Mr. Zhbanov.

But inevitably, in a country beset by economic depression, ethnic tension, resentment, reaction and plain disorganization, there are problems.

How much of a role will Moscow play in the new Baikal Commission? How can a commission impose its will on three separate administrative districts, home to about 1 million people? Will the city of Ulan Ude, on the east side, gain prominence over the whole lake region? Or will Irkutsk, on the west? Are politicians looking out for the lake or looking out for themselves?

Who is to tell the 15,000 employees of the tire factory that they are not only obsolete, but a menace?

A devastating moment

The damage to Baikal has been comparatively instantaneous. For all but the last 100 of its 25 million years, the pure, oxygen-rich waters of the lake were about as clean as water could get.

The rift that created Lake Baikal is still opening; every year, according to Mr. Shapkhaev, Ulan Ude and Irkutsk head in opposite directions by a centimeter or more. Because it's still opening, it hasn't silted in. It is among the oldest lakes in the world, fed by more than 300 rivers, mostly from the east.

Vladimir Molozhnikov, an ecologist in Irkutsk, explains that Baikal became a sort of benign trap for hundreds of animal and plant species. It was a barrier, so it was here that species from north, south, east and west met and mingled. The lake's length and depth ameliorated the climatic extremes of the passing epochs, so that animals and plants could survive here when it was impossible elsewhere.

Wonders abound

Mr. Molozhnikov has walked, he figures, 7,500 miles of the land around Baikal. He has walked where the pine needles underfoot are a tawny red, a Martian color; where the blue forget-me-nots bloom in the shade of mast-straight cedars; where the wild berries and wild grasses roll down to lakeside; where the translucent, almost inner light of the birch forest glows in spring.

"The only uninteresting parts of Baikal are those that man has ruined," he says.

On the beach at Enkhaluk, while a brisk wind blows in off the Siberian taiga, Sergei Shapkhaev quickly strips off his clothes and plunges into the chill waters -- a communion, of sorts, with his life's work.

The lake here is not clear but brown. Enkhaluk lies at the edge of the broad Selenga River delta, built up naturally by the swift-flowing river over thousands of years. The delta is home to an incredible variety of bird life. But today more silt than ever is washed into the lake by the Selenga, the runoff from ill-conceived schemes to cultivate "virgin lands." And with the silt come pesticides, fertilizers, sewage and industrial wastes from the factories of Ulan Ude.

The beach here is strewn with well-rounded stones of quartz, granite, hematite, epidote, much older than the lake itself, sculpted over the course of 4 billion years. Back behind the beach, where the delta gives way to the first low hills, bare, sandy ridges gleam brilliantly in the clear light -- the product of just 20 years of mismanagement.

"Back then I spoke out against cultivation of land like this," Mr. Shapkhaev says. "I was summoned to the local party headquarters, and I had to stop. The land was clear-cut and cultivated. There was very little topsoil and it all washed away. Now it's ruined."

Problems with fish

Earlier in the day, Mr. Shapkhaev had listened carefully to Viktor Gorkovenko, a foreman at a fish-processing plant in Oimur, while two workers out back were shoveling fresh omul into salting vats. Mr. Gorkovenko described how, more and more, they were hauling in fish suffering from skin infections and lesions, and how in a lifetime on the lake he had never seen such problems before.

At least, he said with a laugh, the fish have less to fear from fishermen these days, because the economy's so bad hardly anyone can afford to buy much omul anymore.

"It always comes back to the economy," said Mr. Shapkhaev that evening, on the long, dusty, bone-rattling ride back to Ulan Ude. "It's the biggest threat to the lake. There's no money. There's no system anymore. The government has other problems beside Baikal. But this is a unique time in Russian history. We can take charge now or forever be too late."

High up in the mountains, the van pulls over to the side of the road. A ryabchik, or northern hazelhen, huffily takes flight, away into the forest. From here, the smudge of smoke from the Angara factories is only a distant shadow in the sky.

A small pine stands here. It is a burkhon, a sacred place to the Buryat people, who have never quite let go to their ancient shamanist beliefs. Travelers -- pilgrims, really -- have come up to this high pass and tied small strips of cloth to the branches of the pine, for health, for luck, for hope.

Mr. Shapkhaev has no cloth with him, but he carefully unpacks some of the Russian pancakes called blini, and pours some sweet tea from a thermos. He nibbles on the blini, and sips the tea, and then carefully, deliberately, methodically, scatters the food in an arc around the tree, and flings the drops from his teacup -- for health, for luck, for hope.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad