Thursday, May 16, 2019

Moscow Talking to Beijing about Reversing Siberian Rivers and Selling Water to China

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 14 – Despite widespread anger about Moscow’s willingness to sell Baikal lake water to China, the Russian government reportedly has entered into talks with Beijing about reversing the flow of Siberian rivers in order to sell even more water to Beijing, a move that may profit some in the center but will enrage even more Russians.

            Not surprisingly, Moscow has not trumpeted this given the certainty that it would spark protests in Siberia and the Russian Far East in what is already a troubled time. But the talks were alluded to at a Duma roundtable last month just before the long spring holidays (

            But, a water use watchdog group has now focused on what such a project would involve: 75 billion US dollars in investments, probably all from China, and the dispatch of millions and then billions of cubic meters of water initially from the Ob and then from other rivers to China via Kazakhstan (

            That China and Kazakhstan need the water now and will need even more in the future is not in question, Plotina’s Borislav Kashikhin says; and that Russia has more water flows in this region than it needs at present isn’t either. But the costs both direct in construction and indirect in ecological damage would be enormous.

            Taking water out of the Ob basin would require spending enormous sums to build pumping stations and canals, and its removal would have a serious environmental impact not only on Siberia but on the Arctic, possibly slowing the melting of ice there and thus disrupting current plans to expand the use of the Northern Sea Route.

            These problems, which attracted the attention first of regionalist writers and then environmentalists in the Soviet Union when similar plans were discussed in the 1960s and 1970s, were enough to kill the project at that time.  But there are fears that the profit motive now may today override any such objections.

            The decision made in the USSR not to reverse Siberian river waters, historian and commentator Pavel Pryanikov says, apparently will be reversed now given how much money some in the Russian elite would get and how desperately China needs water for its burgeoning population (

            Given that China might take the water in some way if Moscow doesn’t agree to sell it is one of the arguments for such a deal, some suggest; but the real driver of this revival of river diversion plans is that someone in Russia would get a total of 20 to 25 billion US dollars every year from such an arrangement.

            If that money were to be used to develop Siberia and the Russian Far East, that would be one thing, Pryanikov says; “but if again it simply ended up in the pockets of the Rotenbergs and the Kovalchuks,” that would be quite another. 

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