Younger generation helps Tahoe’s sister lake
October 22, 2006
Edik Batotsirenov has high hopes for his country.
The 27-year-old geologist from Ulan-Ude, Russia, spent five weeks in Tahoe this year through the Tahoe Baikal Institute’s summer environmental exchange program. After seeing how government and environmental protection is done here, he wants to see similar progressions made in his Siberian homeland near Lake Baikal.
“We have to learn from America because we are very far behind,” Batotsirenov said. “It is just the beginning here now. It is a good possibility to look to the future.”
That is the kind of attitude that will save Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake that is 23 times bigger than Lake Tahoe. During the Soviet regime, environmental protection took a back seat as Russia looked to become a military and science superpower.
Today, attitudes among older Russians hark back to the Soviet times. A perception still exists, even amongst those who strive to protect it, that Baikal can never succumb to major pollution problems.
“Baikal is too big for one plant to take over or for one human to make a big impact,” said Fialkov Vladimir Abramovich, director of the Baikalski Museum and Russian director of the Tahoe Baikal Institute. “The opinion is Lake Baikal is fine. It is developing in its own way. It is surrounded by nature and man’s activity is minimal.”
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It is true that industry is limited on Baikal ” save for one pulp and paper mill on the southern end ” and that not many people live around the lake, but as Russia’s economy grows, so will the impact on the environment.
“Lake Baikal is so big that it hasn’t become polluted, but if it did get polluted, it is too big to clean,” said Ted Swift of the California Department of Water Resources.
Russians love their lake that stretches like a skinny banana along Mongolia’s border, but they do not know what they can do to protect the lake themselves. Trash piles are the norm in villages on Baikal and bright buildings that are gravely out-of-place dot Baikal’s landscape.
All waste flushed from toilets on trains near Baikal is dumped directly onto the tracks next to the lake. No sewage system exists at the summer cottages at Baikal.
Diakov Alexy Alekseevich, deputy director of environmental protection in the Irkutsk Oblast administration, noted that the local government does not host environmental education programs and believes it is up to the citizens to determine their view of the environment.
“One can be interested and into the environment, but that doesn’t mean they will participate,” Alekseevich said. “You can have knowledge, but if you don’t care, you might not protect the environment. It is very hard to teach them to protect the environment. They don’t recycle because they don’t know what to do with it. It’s not popular to recycle paper.”
There is also a perception that Mongolians are to blame for much of Baikal’s sedimentation. The majority of Baikal’s watershed lies to the south of Russia, where 50 percent of the lake’s inflow comes from the Selenga River.
Sudeep Chandra, a limnology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, is part of a scientific team studying a giant species of river salmon in Mongolia in the Baikal basin. Part of the study is to see if Mongolia’s mining has an effect on the watershed. What Chandra and his crew have determined is that the mining in Mongolia is localized ” a fact that angers those Russians who believe that the pollution is not theirs.
“There is a threshold,” Chandra said. “We know that from other lakes in the world. In the end, that is the most important story to tell.”
Part of the change that is needed is a formation of an agency similar to Tahoe’s bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, according to Jennifer Smith, who conducted an environmental attitudes study near Baikal and is program coordinator for the Tahoe Baikal Institute. But Smith recognizes that implementation of such an agency would be difficult as there are two regions ” the Irkutsk Oblast and the Buryat Autonomous Region ” as well as two countries, that surround Baikal and its watershed.
“If we think it is difficult to unite California and Nevada in TRPA, it would be more difficult to unite three bodies of government at Baikal,” Smith said. “But that is the biggest policy change needed there.”
A younger generation of Russians, however, are beginning to step up and take responsibility of their surroundings.
Part of that change is thanks to environmental non-profit organizations in Russia
like Baikal Wave. Baikal Wave receives some funds from California-based Pacific Environment and currently boasts 17 members and 100 volunteers. It is on the forefront of changing environmental attitudes near Baikal, educating residents what they can do to protect the environment and encouraging citizens to protest when necessary.
Twenty-eight-year-old Denis Sandanov, a botanist with the Institute of General and Experimental Biology, Dept. of Tibetan Medicine in Ulan-Ude, is one such young Russian who believes environmental protection is needed for Baikal.
“We have many problems in our legislation in that it doesn’t define the situation. As we heard at Lake Tahoe they had the same situation in the ’50s that we have now,”
Sandanov, who also spent the summer in Tahoe, said. “We have to understand the challenges at Lake Baikal and not make the same mistakes.”