Soviet Water Watch

FOREIGNERS visiting major Soviet cities are told they can drink the water just about everywhere - except in Leningrad. For Sergey V. Tsvetkov, the fact speaks volumes. ``The main natural resource of this region was pure water,'' says Mr. Tsvetkov, a bearded geologist and writer in this city. Earlier this month, he helped organize a bilateral conference that brought some 25 problems with water quality to Soviet public attention.

That's so easy to say - ``organize a conference.'' In fact, Tsvetkov's is an ``informal'' group - no government recognition, no bank account, no funds. These circumstances provided the impetus for a visit by environmentalists from the United States to the conference. Three days before it was to open, however, the University of Leningrad retracted its promise of a large, centrally located hall - offering instead a smaller one some 18 miles out of town.

There was no ``official order,'' said a member of the ecological commission of the Leningrad writers' union. There was simply, he thinks, a phone call from one bureaucrat to another, suggesting that the conference was ``inexpedient.'' The bureaucrats' fears may have some basis, although Tsvetkov and his colleagues deny any intention to organize a Greens party.

Nevertheless, the issue of water quality cuts deep here. In the last few years, the Neva River - the city's water supply - has become dangerously polluted. And last summer Ladoga Lake produced algae blooms for the first time in history - largely the result, says Tsvetkov, of chemical fertilizers used for expensive farming improvements.

Moreover, it would trample on bureaucratic toes. Ladoga Lake alone, says Tsvetkov, is subject to 24 ministries and some 75 scientific organizations. So any focus of attention on the problem - one of the goals of this budding environmental movement - may indeed seem inexpedient.

And maybe it is - in the short term. But how many Western politicians and business executives have reason to wish, in hindsight, that someone had forced them to stop a toxic waste dump, a contaminated nuclear site, or a dead lake before it got started?

How many billions will it take Western nations to clean up problems that might have cost only millions to avert?

The challenge facing Mikhail Gorbachev, of course, is that his nation has neither billions nor millions. Yet his policy of glasnost, by bringing new recognition of old problems, brings new costs. The West can't necessarily provide millions, but it can recognize that, in an age of global interdependence, even the little-known problems of Ladoga Lake and the Neva are issues of global import, affecting an environment that belongs to all of humanity.

It can bear painful witness to the fact that truth, told early and acted upon, is ultimately better and cheaper than ignorance and inaction. And just maybe it can share with the concerned populace of Leningrad a valuable, hard-won lesson: that real progress on ecological issues comes when confrontation ends and business, government, and citizens work together on issues of international significance. This city can learn faster.

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