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Lake Baikal is in trouble

a body of water with a mountain in the background

The pearl of Siberia

Lake Baikal is called the pearl of Siberia for its breathtaking beauty, its endemic flora, and fauna and for many other unusual features. Baikal contains 22% of all the world’s fresh water supply and 80% of Russia’s fresh drinking water. That is why the lake is also called the water well of the earth. It might play a very important role in global or regional crises that could take place in the future. Siberia was blessed with this miracle. We mustn’t take it for granted. Our duty is to keep it safe, so we need to realize what threats Lake Baikal is facing.

Baikal Deforestation

Large-scale forest harvesting takes place on the territory of the Republic of Buryatia, including the catchment area of Lake Baikal. In the Irkutsk region, all types of logging are strictly prohibited in the catchment area.

The authorities of Buryatia claim that only sanitary forest harvesting takes place on the territory of the Baikal drainage basin. It is necessary to prevent natural disasters, such as fires and insect infestations.

However, satellites confirm that commercial logging is going on.

Forest in river basins contributes to the regulation of runoff and its distribution throughout the year. Moreover, the forest retains moisture and prevents mechanical evaporation from the water surface by slowing down the wind speed. No doubt, the forest is one of the factors of the full flow of the rivers going into Baikal and the lake level stability.

The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill

Since 1966, the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill dumped about 96% of wastewater from the total volume of discharged water into Baikal. In December 2013, it was closed down, but the plant was not eliminated. The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill waste still poses a threat to the ecological safety of Lake Baikal. The problem of eliminating waste is being solved slowly.

The biggest tributary of Baikal

a sandy beach next to the ocean

More than 300 rivers bring their waters to the lake. The Selenga River is the main and largest tributary of Lake Baikal. The lake receives a lot of waste dumped water delivered by the Selenga. Such towns as Ulan-Bator, Ulan-Ude, Selenginsk, and many others pollute the water.

There are enterprises for the extraction of gold and minerals, as well as factories and plants along the riverbed of the Selenga. Sewage treatment plants of most enterprises are outdated and cannot cope with their task. So various chemicals and oil products get into the water. Along the river, there is agricultural land, where mineral fertilizers and pesticides are used, which could get into the channel, and then into Lake Baikal.

Water pollution

One more problem is the discharge of ballast water from ships and pollution of the lake with oil products. Over the past few years, the number of vessels of all classes on Lake Baikal has increased significantly. There are about 2000 different watercrafts on Lake Baikal.

Most of them do not transfer liquid waste to special points but dump it directly into the lake.

Baikal overtourism

About a million tourists come to the lake every year. Their vital activity and disorganized tourism cause rubbish on the banks, which gets into the water. It is necessary to highlight the flow of tourists from China. Recently, entrepreneurs from China have begun to buy land on the shores of Lake Baikal and build hotels and hostels for tourists from their homeland. Chinese tourists come to Siberia with their own guides, and by their own buses. So the region is not economically supported by this kind of tourism.

What can be done to save Baikal?

a field of tall grass

We haven’t covered all the troubles Lake Baikal is facing day by day. But these dreadful examples look like all people need is getting profit from the lake. We will stop doing it when it could be too late. Before we reach the point of no return, we must find the solution.

In 2019 the Russian government amended Law on the protection of Lake Baikal, allowing the ‘Russian Railways’ to carry out deforestation to expand the Baikal-Amur and Trans-Siberian railways. Environmentalists are against it. They claim that deforestation will lead to the destruction of the Baikal ecosystem. Massive deforestation has already changed the climate in the region. Ecological Association ‘Baikal Commonwealth (Baikalskoe Sodruzhestvo)’ is looking for other options for placing Russian Railways facilities.

In 2021, the government of the Irkutsk region plans to start eliminating  The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill waste. It was claimed by  Dmitry Galankin – the head of the project office of the Ministry of Natural Resources. His working group is implementing the national project ‘Ecology’ now.

The government of town Selenginsk has taken steps to construct new sewage treatment facilities and ensure the discharge of wastewater in compliance with acceptable concentrations of substances established for the Selenga River.

Baikal must remain accessible to tourists. The region needs to organize tourism in a better way. Because tourism is one of the main income-generating sectors of the budgets of Buryatia and the Irkutsk region, as well as for local residents. The local government is developing projects to control and disperse the tourist flow, creating an appropriate infrastructure. The project of campsites construction is under consideration now. Legal campsites are going to solve the problem of unorganized tourism and to reduce rubbish on the shores of the lake.

Each of us can do something to help Baikal. For example, in Irkutsk, there is an ecological organization ‘My Baikal (Moi Baikal)’ that collects rubbish from the shores of Baikal with the support of volunteers.  Following the link ‘Moi Baikal’ you can make a donation to support the organization. They have been keeping the lake clean since 2013. They have collected 17858 bags of rubbish and eliminated 6 illegal landfills from the shores.

We mustn’t be indifferent to the future of Lake Baikal. There is always something we can do to make a difference if we want to.

Written by Marina, local guide.