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At Asia's heart, Lake Baikal stirs Russians to protect nature

Why We Wrote This

Environmental protections are often reactive, coming only after pristine areas have succumbed to pollution and degradation. But on Siberia's Lake Baikal, care for nature has always been a way of life. Fifth in a five-part series.

Baikalsky Vladimir/ZUMA Press/Newscom
A view of Cape Burkhan and Shamanka Rock at Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake.

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Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and deepest lake, is the only natural feature in Russia that has its own law. But it's easy to see why, given its pristine beauty and the importance it holds for those who live in the republic of Buryatia. Set in a rift valley at the very heart of Asia, the lake's forested mountainsides plunge precipitously into crystal-clear waters and long stretches of lonely, rocky shoreline. It is also the engine of an ecosystem hosting scores of unique plant and animal species. That makes determining how to sustainably take advantage of its bounty a challenge. The Kremlin has plans to expand the system of national parks around the lake and for more comprehensive rules against industry in the entire Baikal watershed. “This was a totally closed zone in Soviet times. There were no boat tours or any other developed tourism here. So it's all new,” says Maria Tsivilova, who runs a lake tour service out of the coastal village of Turka. “It's complicated to find a balance between enjoying the lake and preserving it. But I think we will eventually get it right.”

Almost everyone in the Russian republic of Buryatia describes themselves as an environmentalist.

It is the presence of the unspeakably beautiful Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and deepest lake, that has shaped that attitude.

Legend has it that Genghis Khan, who once ruled here, decreed that there should be no hunting, fishing, or even walking around the shores of the lake. The native Buryats, some of whom still practice a version of his Tengrist faith, continue to regard Lake Baikal as a sacred place. The lake was even the inspiration for the Soviet Union's first environmental movement, when plans to build a pulp and paper mill on its shore in the 1970s were stymied by an unprecedented, emotion-charged public outcry.

Today, the lake is the only natural feature in Russia that has its own law, passed in 1999, which bans many types of industry, including mining, and chemical-based farming in a buffer zone around the lake that includes most of Buryatia. And that makes Baikal a double-edged sword for the economically stagnant republic. The region's beauty and largely untapped resources give it a high potential for job growth – tourism is frequently mentioned. But legal protections, remoteness, and ecological fragility are all major obstacles.

“It's a paradox for us, because this is one of the most economically undeveloped regions in Russia,” says Natalya Tumureyeva, head of the local chapter of the liberal Yabloko Party. “It's no secret that there's a wealth of resources here, and despite all the laws there is a lot of exploitation of forests, fisheries, and minerals that goes on illegally.... Most people here would be willing to pay a price to protect the lake, but laws need to be properly explained to people and fairly enforced.”

Balancing enjoyment and preservation

It's not surprising that such an awesome natural wonder should be the object of intense passions, as well as political struggle between those who want to exploit its resources and beauty for economic gain and those who seek to preserve it in its pristine condition.

Set in a rift valley at the very heart of Asia, the lake's forested mountainsides plunge precipitously into crystal-clear waters and long stretches of lonely rocky shoreline. It is also the engine of a unique ecosystem that has scores of plant and animal species to be found nowhere else.

While its surface area is comparable to that of Lake Erie, its average depth of almost half-a-mile makes Baikal the most voluminous by far, containing a staggering 22 percent of all the Earth's unfrozen freshwater supplies. In 1996, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site. And it remains protected from developers: Only a decade ago, President Vladimir Putin interceded with economic planners to reroute a controversial oil pipeline away from Baikal after local ecologists mounted a furious campaign against it.

Maria Tsivilova, who runs a tour service out of Turka, complains about constant inspections of her boats by various government departments, and the stringent rules that require her to seal up all waste in special containers and ship them out of the area, or face hefty fines for any violation. Nevertheless, she keeps on board each boat a barrel full of pure lake-water scooped from over the side, and encourages guests to drink as much as they like.

“This was a totally closed zone in Soviet times. There were no boat tours, or any other developed tourism here. So it's all new,” she says. “It's complicated to find a balance between enjoying the lake and preserving it. But I think we will eventually get it right.”

Perhaps new initiatives will come from Moscow. Mr. Putin, recently re-elected, has identified a range of economic and social priorities. People here have not failed to notice that he mentioned Lake Baikal twice in his May decrees, outlining the key plans for his next term.

“There is a lot of attention now on finding a path to environmentally-sound economic development around Baikal,” says Andrei Borodin, chief of the Baikal Volunteer Corps, which started as a spontaneous public initiative during forest fires in 2015, and has since brought many local politicians, academics, and activists into a permanent council that works closely with local government.

“Putin has ordered his government to draw up a full program to improve the environment around Baikal. The draft already exists, and it is called ‘A Great Lake for a Great Nation,’ ” he says. “You may laugh at us for the sloganeering, but it's a sign of seriousness. We can't do anything in this country without it.”

‘There is so much to do’

The draft calls for major expansion of the system of national parks on both sides of the lake, and much more comprehensive rules against industry, mining, and logging in the entire Baikal watershed.

“The presidential project sounds hopeful, but realizing it will not be easy,” says Svetlana Budashkayeva, chair of Health of Buryatia, a public organization that helps convalescent patients, and specializes in “medical tourism,” which stresses activities in nature, like hiking, swimming in the lake, and bathing in the mountain hot springs that can be found near Baikal.

“A lot of financial resources will be required to do it properly,” she says. “We would need to change the sewage systems, not only in lake-shore communities but in big cities like Ulan-Ude. Somehow, despite all the rules, phosphates are seeping into the lake and threatening its ecological balance. And there is the threat of climate change; small rivers are drying up, the water table is falling, we have much dryer weather in summer. There is so much to do.”

There is also an urgent need for regeneration of the nearly 6,000 square miles of forests destroyed in the wildfires three years ago. Mr. Borodin says there is a growing fear that climate change is playing a role in the unprecedented droughts, heatwaves, and subsequent fires that have struck the region.

“We decided that we couldn't rely entirely on government alone to prevent a recurrence of those huge fires, so we have established our organization on a permanent basis. We have also reached out to groups like Greenpeace to bring international experience,” he says. “If our goal is to protect Baikal, we need a comprehensive approach to the entire surrounding environment. We want to cooperate more with government and business, and to design educational programs to teach local people to deal sensibly with sewage, garbage, and other activities that affect the ecology. We have our work cut out for us.”

Tourism to Baikal

The republican government has established a “special economic zone” at Turka, to promote environmentally-friendly and well-regulated tourist and other economic activities.

Ms. Tsivilova's boat tours operate from here. Nearby a local developer is building a “yurt village” on the lake shore, and renting out these hardy, traditional circular Mongol tents, mostly to weekend guests from Ulan-Ude, about 2 hours drive away. A local company will gather and process forest herbs, berries, and pine nuts from the surrounding mountains, which are in great demand – especially in nearby China.

Fred Weir
A group of Mongolian tourists bathing in Baikal on the beach at Gremyachinsk, near one of the few tourist centers, on the eastern shore of the lake.

Down the coast, near a long stretch of sandy beach, a group of Russian investors have built a hotel complex called Baikal Riviera. Set back on a hill overlooking the lake, it's one of a handful of facilities that has been designed to meet all the stringent new regulations. Even their lakeside banya – the Russian-style steam bath – is banned from using any shampoos, massage oils, or other chemical preparations. They offer a range of accommodations for about 150 people, with very modern standards, and seem to be full in summer. Even a few Western European guests are in evidence.

Daria Popova, the manager, says that Lake Baikal is a frozen wonderland in winter, and they have big plans to develop activities for the whole year.

“It's complicated. We have great nature, but infrastructure around Baikal is still very sparse. I'm afraid most foreigners will regard this as adventure tourism, though we would like to make it a more normal thing,” she says. “The point is, it is perfectly feasible to have a great time while doing no damage to the lake.”

Still, the gap between intentions and reality can be wide. A case in point is threat to the omul, a prized and high-priced species of fish found only in Lake Baikal. Illegal fishing and the drying up of the rivers where it spawns have driven down stocks disastrously. Last year the government placed an emergency ban on all fishing of the species. Yet, omul is still visibly on sale almost everywhere, even in Ulan-Ude shops.

“We have a long way to go,” says Borodin. “But there is a growing understanding at the top levels of government, here and in Moscow, that something has to be done to secure the ecology of Lake Baikal for future generations. We are in action mode, and we have a lot of hopes.”

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