Feature: Baikal’s Environmental Issues

Home to an estimated 60,000 nerpa seals as well as hundreds of endemic species, Lake Baikal is beautiful, pristine and drinkably pure in most areas. As it holds an astonishing 80% of Russia’s fresh water, environmentalists are keen to keep things that way. In the 1960s, despite the pressures of the Soviet system, it was the building of Baikal’s first (and only) lakeside industrial plant that galvanised Russia’s first major green movement. That plant, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, was a major polluter of the lake until it closed in 2013.

But the ecosystem extends beyond the lake itself. Another challenge includes polluted inflows from the Selenga River, which carries much of Mongolia’s untreated waste into the lake. The most contentious of recent worries is the US$16 billion Eastern Siberia oil pipeline which runs from Tayshet to the Pacific coast. Completed in 2009, the route deliberately loops north, avoiding the lakeshore itself. But with a potential 1.6 million barrels of oil flowing daily across the lake’s northern water catchment area, an area highly prone to seismic activity, environmentalists fear that a quake-cracked pipeline could gush crude into Baikal’s feedwaters.

For more information, see the websites of regional ecogroups Baikal Wave (http://baikalwave.blogspot.co.uk), Baikal Watch (www.earthisland.org/baikal) and the wonderful Baikal Web World (www.bww.irk.ru), which has lots about the wildlife, history and legends of the lake.