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Environmental monitoring of Lake Baikal in 2007 has revealed
Environmental monitoring of Lake Baikal in 2007 has revealed the lake is facing a three-pronged assault on its natural territory. Increasing waste from a pulp-and-paper plant, poaching of Baikal omul, the lake's iconic fish, and chaotic construction of private housing and recreation centers are all affecting the lake's ecology. Such were the conclusions of the second meeting of the Interdepartmental Commission on Lake Baikal's Protection in the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Baikal is a real patriarch among lakes. Usually, a lake exists for no more than 15,000 years before it is destroyed by precipitation. Baikal emerged some 25 million years ago, but shows not a single sign of ageing. It holds every fifth drop of the world's fresh water - 23 billion tons all in all. This amount of water could sustain the entire human race for 40 years, and this is why Baikal is considered a strategic reserve.

Its unique ecology includes more than 1,000 species of flora, and 1,550 types of fauna, including endemic species like omul and the Bailkal seal. But most importantly of all, it owes its crystal clear water to another of its unique species - the epishura. These tiny crayfish constantly filter the water's upper layers, enriching it with oxygen, and making it an ideal habitat for other species.

But experts have noted that the epishura crayfish are showing increasing signs of degradation - their gills are affected, and their shell is becoming thinner. If they become extinct, the lake will die with them. Unfortunately, this is not an exaggeration but bitter reality.

Half a century ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed a monstrous idea to build a pulp-and-paper plant on the shore of the unique lake. The authors of the project saw Baikal as a source of clean water, which is required for the production of super-strong cord pulp, urgently needed for the nation's developing space program. The plant was built quickly, and although an alternative solution to the cord pulp problem was found even quicker, the plant was put into operation.

Since then, scientists have always insisted that Baikal can only be saved if the plant is shut down. But this cannot be done until a serious humanitarian problem is resolved - something has to be done about the town that has been built by the plant and effectively depends on it for its survival. There is one more major factor. The plant's controlling interest (51%) is in private hands. Yet this does not mean that nothing can be done. In 1997, the State Duma passed a bill imposing strict restrictions on its operation. It prohibited any increase in production, and required a closed cycle. But, regrettably, the law is not always respected in Russia - production is being developed, and there is still no closed cycle.

The Siberian affiliate of Rosgeolfond, the company that summed up the results of the environmental monitoring study, says that in 2007 the growth of the plant's production increased its waste by nine percent - to 41.1 million cubic meters. Moreover, its discharge leaks into the subterranean waters that feed the lake. Last year their volume was 898,000 cubic meters.

And that is not all. Speaking at the meeting Alexander Polyakov, head of Rosprirodnadzor, Russia's environmental watchdog for the Irkutsk Region, revealed that the plant has stored up to 400,000 tons of ashes on the lake's shores, which also leak into subterranean waters.

While the producers of pulp are polluting the lake with industrial waste, poachers are pursuing their own business. Unauthorized catches of omul have grown by 10% in the past year, surpassing 400 tons. Trying to cover up their illegal activities, poachers are throwing nets with rotting fish into the lake.

Unlicensed builders are not marking time, either - dachas, houses, and huge villas are mushrooming on Baikal's shores. There are cynical ads on posters near the lake - "Selling a piece of Baikal for cheap."

Monitoring of Lake Baikal's natural territory (386,000 square km.) is carried out by seven agencies who study 30 different components of its environment and threats. This complicated system has to be streamlined. The members of the commission agreed that it does not portray a full picture of the lake's problems. To redress the situation, they have drafted a plan for improving the state-sponsored monitoring of the lake and its natural territory.

The plan primarily provides for the reconstruction of the monitoring network, upgrading of space-based observations, and drafting bills to protect the lake. The order of monitoring will also be changed. The ultimate goal is to reveal the condition of the environment and the impact of negative factors upon it.

Russia is not alone in worrying about Lake Baikal. Since it was declared a UNECO world heritage site it has also been controlled by international agencies. But UNESCO also has a black list of engendered sites. It would be good to avoid it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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