Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Buryats Worried by Mongolia‘s Plan to Dam Chief Tributary of Lake Baikal

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 19 – Mongolian officials unexpectedly told participants in the XI Conference on the Protection and Administration of Trans-Border Rivers in Ulan Udelast week that Ulan Bator is considering building a dam and reservoir on the Selenga, the river that is the chief tributary for Lake Baikal.

            Mongolian scholars have mentioned this possibility in the past, but the December 14th statement was the first from an official. And that has touched off discussions in Buryatia about the dam’s implications for them and for Lake Baikal (

            B. Tulga, the Mongolian deputy minister for nature and green development, told the conference that the new Mongolian government is “planning the construction of a hydro-electric station or reservoir on the Selenga.” No final decision has been taken, he said, and everything will be done “step by step” taking into account the needs of people on both sides of the border.
            The consequences for those north of the border and for Lake Baikal could be serious. On the one hand, because reservoirs collect water at the times of year that those living downstream most need it, such a dam could trigger tensions between the Buryats, who are themselves Mongols, and the Khalka Mongols of Mongolia.
            And on the other hand, any interference with the flow of the Selenga could affect the extremely fragile eco-system of Lake Baikal, one of the world’s natural wonders and the focal point of environmental attention not only in the region but across the Russian Federation and internationally.
            Igor Nikitin, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Agency of Water Resources, offered the local news agency a comment which seems unlikely to reassure everyone. “Despite the fact that no decisions have yet been taken,” he said, “we have agreed” that any construction of a dam and reservoir on the Selenga will be “watched by us at all stages.”
            He acknowledged that there are both “theoretical and practical” reasons that such a dam and reservoir could harm Lake Baikal, adding that “our task is to find a common interest and to avoid negative consequences.” What he did not say is that Moscow will focus on the impact of such a Mongolian facility on Buryatia’s population.
            Meanwhile, Valery Molotov, the head of the Administration of Water Resources for Lake Baikal, said that “not everything” about the Mongolian proposal “is as negative as it is sometimes described in the mass media.” But he acknowledged that in the absence of great care things could go very wrong.
            The waters of the Selenga are “much purer than those in other districts,” he said, but that could change if new construction allowed for the development of industry and population centers upstream.  Were that to happen, Molotov concluded, “nature is so constituted that it more rapidly is affected by population and much more slowly by efforts to clean it up.”

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