MOSCOW — UNDER an ancient stone bridge, where the sun hardly ever shines through an overcast sky, the Uhanov family grows vegetables on the banks of the severely polluted Yauza River.
Victor Uhanov says the family needs these cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes to supplement their diet. He knows the river is polluted because he works as an electrician at a nearby textile factory that pours waste chemicals into the river every week.
``Nobody cares about the river,'' Mr. Uhanov says. Factory administrators and politicians are preoccupied with more pressing problems, Uhanov says, so ``it's impossible to do anything about'' the pollution.
But a group of local ecologists and United States environmental consultants have launched a project to clean up Russian rivers. Operation Twinkling Star will address a portion of the Pronya River, 150 miles southeast of Moscow. This is part of a wider effort by US firms both to help the environment and expand sales.
``Russia has enormous ecological problems,'' says Alan Cibuzar, a US environmental consultant who initiated the project. ``There's a tremendous market for our products there, but we're mainly doing missionary work now; profits will come later.''
Sun Microsystems has distributed computer workstations to environmental agencies in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, says Sun's Rob Hall in Moscow. The ministries use Sun workstations for everything from interpreting satellite images of polluted sites to detecting leaks in oil pipelines. Sun has hired more than 500 residents of the Commonwealth of Independent States to work in engineering, software development, and distribution. The ``CIS is not just a market for our products,'' Mr. Hall says. ``It's a phenomenally important partner for technology development.''
Mr. Cibuzar says he agrees that Russian scientists have many good ideas on how to clean up the environment, but they need political and financial backing. Operation Twinkling Star emphasizes political organizing. The project aims to clean up factory and agricultural waste dumped in the Pronya River. The government will set up a water purification system, paid for by the polluting enterprises, says project director Eugenia Pastuchova. The Americans coached the Russians in a whole new approach, Ms. Pastuchova says. In the old days, political change came in the form of a bureaucrat with orders from Moscow, she says. This effort is organizing people at the grass roots.
Local residents have formed an environmental group to keep up the political pressure. ``Teachers will design lesson plans about the river cleanup,'' Pastuchova says. ``Newspapers will run regular supplements on its progress.''
If the project succeeds, US backers plan to use it as a model for other rivers. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a Redlands, Calif., software company, contributed a $24,000 software program that will help monitor river pollution. US companies in Russia are giving away products, in part, to establish familiarity and gain market share. ``We've donated a lot of software to universities and research institutes,'' says Kevin Daugherty, ESRI's Russia marketing director.
US firms also must handle the vagaries of Russian politics. Some Russian backers of the project, for example, were members of the now-dissolved Parliament. US project organizers feared the project could be scuttled if Yeltsin forces perceived it as a Parliament-sponsored effort. With the immediate crisis over, the project is on track, Cibuzar says.