We are in a world where there is a continuous exploitation of natural resources and very little care about the environmental consequences. Rapid industrialization has created havoc to the delicately balanced ecosystems. The effect that human population has had on global ecosystem is certainly undeniable and global biodiversity is being seriously challenged. The rapid deforestation of Amazon forest, the irreparable damage that we have done to the coral reefs along the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean coasts are examples of man made ecological disasters. Environmentalists world over are alarmed at the pace at which our economic ambitions are driving the ecosystem out of balance. The case of 'Lake Baikal' offers an excellent example of one of the largest and oldest fresh water eco systems which sustains a wide variety of flora and fauna and in particular innumerable endemic species. For millennia Lake Baikal's ecosystem has flourished in total isolation untouched by the human population. Unfortunately today, this precious Siberian ecozone is also feeling the negative effects of human abuse. Let us have an overview of Lake Baikal from the ecological perspective and the threats to its biodiversity in a little detail.
Lake Baikal is the world's largest fresh water lake with a length of 636 Km and a maximum width of 80 km. It is also one of the oldest lakes in the world with radiocarbon dating of the sediments clearly showing its age to be some 25 million years. This is also the largest fresh water lake of the world and holds 1/5th or 20% of the world's fresh water reserves. More than 360 rivers and tributaries flow into the lake and the lake empties out into the river Angara which is on its northwest shore. It has a maximum depth of 1637m and average depth of 630 meters and thermal springs keep even the deepest part of the lake oxygenated. An astounding fact that shows the voluminous nature of the lake is that even if all the 360 tributaries and rivers dried up it would take 400 years for the lake to be totally drained by its only outlet, the Angara River. The fact that the lake is home to more than 1200 species of fauna and more than 1000 species of flora is a measure of its biodiversity. More than 80% of the species living in the lake are endemic. Asides this, the lake is also directly responsible for the sustenance of more than 2500 species of animals in the surrounding taiga. (Forest) This lake also known as the 'blue pearl' and the 'sacred sea of Siberia' is a natural wonder and a huge ecosystem. However, industrial development and disregard for environmental concerns have threatened the biodiversity of the lake. [Living Lakes]
Importance of Lake Baikal
The biological importance of Lake Baikal is evident from the UNESCO declaration of Lake Baikal as a world heritage site and "the most outstanding example of a freshwater ecosystem." The range of climatic conditions within the surrounding areas of the lake has contributed to a rich variety of plant life in the region. While the Coniferous forests occupy the western regions pine forests are common in the eastern areas and deciduous forests predominate the northern region. The fauna found in the lake is amongst the most diverse in the world with more than 255 amphipod species and 80 types of flatworms. The epishura, a tiny crustacean is the natural cleaning mechanism for the lake as it consumes all the decaying matter in the water. The most important and the only mammal species in the lake is the endemic Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica). There are also more than 260 species of birds found in the Baikalsky Zapovednik. In the surrounding taiga there are more than 39 species of mammals, brown bear (Ursus arctos), fox (Vulpes) and rare species such as the flying squirrel (Pteromys volans). Given this diversity of plants and animals that are directly and indirectly sustained by the Baikal Lake environmental threat would endanger a whole ecosystem. The management of the Baikal watershed is coordinated between Russian and Mongolian government regulations. At present the Baikalpriroda, a federal environmental protection agency for the lake supervises the resource sharing and other environmental issues pertaining to Lake Baikal. [Anthony J. Brunello]
Environmental Effects (Air and Water Pollution)
The Baikal lake ecosystem is a highly sensitive one as Vladimir Fialkov a hydrologist and environmental crusader who has studied the lake for long period of time says, "The ecosystem here is one of the oldest and most fragile in the world, 'Even the smallest chemical parti- cles will lead to mutation in organisms that have taken millions of years to evolve.." [Valentin Rasputin]. Today there are many point and non-point pollution sources. Industries and mining centers have created air pollution and water contamination to levels that have started to affect the aquatic ecosystem. Let us have a brief overview of each of them.
The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill (BPPM) is the one of the region's oldest functioning industries (around 40 years) and the major polluting source. It uses an old and highly dangerous method of bleaching pulp using chlorine. This factory produces 50,000 cubic meters of water pollution and 20,000 tons of air pollution every year. The concerning fact is that even when the air and water pollution levels for other regions have been contained between 1998 and 2001, in the BPPM zone concentrations of effluents have increased by around 46% during the same period. [Anthony J. Brunello] Even recently, on 22nd March 2004 there was an accidental release of chlorine which was fortunately within the acceptable limits and was contained immediately. In spite of continuous regional and global pressure the firm continues to operate with outdated and dangerous techniques. [Greenpeace]
Mineral Mining Plants
The Baikal watershed is a region rich in minerals and energy resources. There are many Uranium, Granite, molybdenum-tungsten mining operations along the lake region. In the Russian part of the watershed alone there are more than 12 gold mining operations in process. The bad point about these mining centers is that they use outdated methods of processing and employ very little environmental safety measures. All these units continue to use mercury and cyanide to extract gold. These obsolete techniques pollute the selenga river with deposits of mercury, iron, sulphur and chloride. Environmental studies conducted on Buryatia state's mining operations found that the molybdenum-tungsten operations are the most polluting. Between 1997 and 1999 there were too many deaths of seals in the lake due to the increase in toxic effluents. The situation is even worse in some of the mining centers in Mongolia where very paltry sum is allocated for environmental safety precautions. For example in the Zamaar region of Mongolia the environmental safety budget was a meager 1200$ (as of 2001) for a gold mine that earns revenue in excess of $40 million which shows the sheer neglect for environmental concerns. [Anthony J. Brunello] The proposed oil pipelines to China is again perceived as a serious threat to the lake as the pipelines would have to traverse through the Baikal Watershed which carries the danger that any accidental spillage would doom the entire aquatic population. [Cook, Gary]
Over the last decade Lake Baikal has attracted the attention of local and international environmentalists. Many international organizations like World Bank, Global Environmental Facility (GEF), German Development Agency (GTZED), USAID, EU/TACIS and NGO's like 'Baikal Environmental Wave' have contributed and coordinated the biodiversity conservation programs. The GEF for example contributed $20 Million in 1996 ($7 million was for Baikal) for the biodiversity conservation project which was managed and supervised by the World Bank. The important issues that were addressed by the project were improving the coordination between Russia and Mongolia in managing the Baikal watershed and raising the environmental safety standards of the regional industrial units to global standards and implementing a comprehensive monitoring program. The project was successfully completed in 2003.
Baikal Watch and Baikal Environmental Wave
Among the non-governmental organizations which play a vital role in the biodiversity awareness and conservation programs in the region are the 'Baikal Watch', Ecojuris, and the 'Baikal Environmental Wave'. Ever since its inception in 1990 the Baikal Watch has offered educational, technical and financial support for environmental programs across the Baikal region. Millions of dollars have been attracted to the Baikal conservation efforts form the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, Parks Canada and other NGO's, mainly due to the promotional efforts of Baikal Watch. One of the important activities of 'Baikal Watch' environmental organization is organizing ecotours and contributing the funds to conservation efforts. To date more than 70 ecotours have been organized and the funds successfully utilized for environmental preservation activities. Baikal Watch has also trained more than 500 environmentalists in Soviet Union. Together the Baikal Environmental Wave and the Baikal Watch have fought for improving the protection for the Baikal seal which has been hunted in thousands. They also play an…