Save the Lake Baikal – a victim of climate and hydropower

Save the Lake Baikal – a victim of climate and hydropower

An appeal  to the Paris Climate Summit in from the Northeast Asia’s leading environmental groups and research institutions

Many government and industry players market large hydropower, as a "solution for climate change", while in reality it often exacerbates climate change, impacts on resilience of aquatic ecosystems and diminishes the adaptation capacity of local communities. Lake Baikal, threatened both by extreme drought and hydropower impacts is a vivid example of such mismanagement and poor decision-making.

Small Taishir Hydro built in Mongolia degraded Zavkhan river valley and disrupted lifestules of many nomads

In June 2015 the IUCN reported to the World Heritage Committee (WHC) in Bonn that 35 out of 228 Natural World Heritage sites worldwide suffer serious climate change impacts, while in the same year, 11 sites are threatened by dam projects, including several where the impacts\threats come from dams in a neighboring country. Lake Baikal in Russia, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater lake and a World Heritage site since 1996, suffers the impact of both climate change and hydropower, and is further threatened by three reservoir projects planned in Mongolia.(IUCN, 2015[1])

At the Paris Climate Summit a consortium of many local, regional and international civil society groups presented to governments and financiers an appealing manifesto on"10 Reasons Why Climate Initiatives Should Not Include Large Hydropower Projects"[2].

Our appeal prepared by participants of the IX International Conference "Rivers of Siberia and Far East" (held on November 10-12 2015 in Irkutsk) reinforces this reasoning with a vivid example of climate-driven catastrophe at Baikal – the largest lake on Earth exacerbated by poor and greedy decisions in energy and water management.

2. Baikal under severe climate stress exacerbated by energy industry

Lake Baikal holding 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater resources has been the major mechanism sustaining the stability of the regional climate systems of North Asia and the Arctic Basin. The Lake is home to 2500 (!) aquatic species, more than half of them endemic – diversity hardly known in any other lake on Earth. The Lake Baikal basin is divided between Mongolia and Russia, and 80% of the watershed of its main tributary the Selenge River lies in Mongolia. Mongols as well as local Russian communities revere the Lake as the "Sacred Sea".

However, Baikal is not only a natural lake but also a hydropower reservoir of the Irkutsk Hydro Power Plant on the outflowing Angara river built in 1960 and that has had a most profound negative effect on the Lake. The integrity of the lake ecosystem was severely damaged by raising and artificial regulation of water levels that ruin natural cycles. This has led to increase in erosion, losses in endemic and economically important fish, degradation of unique coastal ecosystems and historic relics, damage to coastal property of local people, conflicts between the Buryatia Republic that receives most of the negative impacts and Irkutsk Region where the dam is located. To prevent greater damage in the future, the limitation of allowable water-level change since 2001 were explicitly prescribed by the Government, but it did not address the unnatural timing and frequency of fluctuations caused by human regulation and was hardly possible to complywith in years of flood or extreme drought.

During 1998-2015 Lake Baikal has been influenced by prolonged drought in Mongolia, where average air temperatures increased 2 centigrade over the last 60 years – twice the global average. In 2014 the main water source – the Selenge River – brought only half the water volume it normally supplied to the lake and water levels are gradually declining. At the same time climate change results in rising water temperatures of this normally freezing-cold lake, creating welcoming environment for invasive species and problems for endemics. Runoff from territories affected by catastrophic forest fires and sewage from the growing number of on-shore tourist camps has contributed to severe eutrophication of near-shore waters. Climatic fluctuations led to full-fledged ecological and a socio-economic crisis on the Baikal Lake shore with massive invasive algae blooms, die-off of endemic sponge communities that filter lake water, decline in fisheries and increase in severe peat fires in the Selenge River delta, which is a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

The Irkutsk dam, that theoretically could regulate water to alleviate some extreme climate impacts, in fact is operated in a way exacerbating negative consequences for the ecosystem and people due to a conflicting need to continue generate energy in Angara River hydropower cascade and supply water to an additional thermal power plant owned by the same energy company. Unless amended the current water management regulations will result in an increase of negative environmental impacts on the lake’s ecosystem, food chains, and even to the ecological integrity of waterbirds habitats in the Selenga River Delta. However the government of Russia shows an extreme lack of capacity to monitor and analyze ecological changes and translate it into a solid comprehensive climate adaptation management system safeguarding the Lake and local population.

At this catastrophic moment new major threats are unfolding with the Mongolian Government claiming its right to use the transboundary Selenge river to develop its own hydropower cascade on the main feeding source of the Lake Baikal. These upstream dams may present the last drop that triggers an abrupt loss of resilience and degradation of the Lake Baikal ecosystem, as it happens now at Lake Turkana Parks World Heritage site in Kenya[3].

The WHC Session in Bonn on July 1, 2015[4] set forth requirements for impact assessment of Egiin Gol Hydro, Shuren Hydro and other dams, as well as a basin wide bilateral SEA. The World Heritage Committee requested that Mongolia should not approve any of the dam projects until the individual dam EIAs and assessment of cumulative impacts have been completed and reviewed by the World Heritage Center and IUCN.

3. Companies and banks are killing Baikal in the name of curbing carbon emissions

To stop degradation and drive the process towards sustainable climate adaptation solutions one cannot avoid the question who are the agents of destruction driving lake Baikal towards environmental catastrophe and what are their stated motifs?

You will find most of them are at Climate Summit in Paris – a noble collection of companies and institutions that promote their "commitment to the climate cause" and "curbing greenhouse gas emissions". We will list them below:

A. The French energy giant "Engie" (formerly GDF-Suez) that recently established office in Mongolia to assist development of large hydropower (Egiin Gol) and the largest coal-fired plant (CHP-5). Recently this company boasted at APEC conference in Ulaan Baatar[5] that it can help to build Egiin Gol Hydro on a major tributary in the Selenge River basin as quickly and efficiently as it assisted Ethiopia with development of the GIBE III dam that now kills Lake Turkana Parks World Heritage site in adjacent Kenya. The company is responsible for Egiin Gol Hydro EIA that the World Heritage Committee called incomplete and which was never discussed with the public at Lake Baikal. Engie Co. plays a key role in "greenwashing" questionable energy projects and linking international investors with Chinese contractors by "advanced European expertise".

B. China Gezhouba Group and China Eximbank. On November 11 2015 Mongolia and China issued a joint statement that calls for development of large energy projects including three major coal industry complexes and large hydropower[6]. Mongolia also secured a 1 billion USD loan from China EximBank which it will use for construction of Egin Gol Hydro[7] , preparation for which has been started by Gezhouba Int. Co.[8]. Multiple letters asking for dialogue sent to China EximBank by Rivers without Boundaries Coalition were left unanswered.

Cooperation with Mongolia is labeled by China as part of its "Silk Belt" development initiative, which in its general policy document boldly promotes " cooperation in hydropower, nuclear power, wind power, solar power and other clean, renewable energy sources…"[9]. Since both Chinese institutions are state owned and the Sino-Mongolian deal is stamped by two governments this likely constitutes a violation of respective articles of the Ramsar and World Heritage Conventions calling to avoid harm to natural sites protected by conventions in other countries.

C. The World Bank Group is another notable player, that despite clear guidance from a wide array of its own safeguard policies managed to identify two additional hydropower dams in the Baikal Lake Basin as the subject of its MINIS Project in Mongolia. This project helps the Mongolian government to develop feasibility studies and market to investors priority infrastructure related to the mining sector. Completed prefeasibility studies for Shuren and Orkhon dam projects do not include any sufficient analysis of their relation to climate adaptation and river ecosystem resilience to climate change. The meaningless calculation of carbon emissions "avoided" by construction of hydro (that is not replacing any thermal facilities) is the only trace of climate-related wording in the project documents. Concerned local people from Russia and Mongolia successfully filed a complaint that was considered eligible by the WB Inspection Panel thus supporting validity of their grave concerns[10].

D. Oleg Deripaska – one of Russia’s richest businessmen, who owns En+ Group, that combines the world’s first aluminum giant AC Rusal, the cascade of hydropower plants on Lake Baikal and the Angara River and wide array of coal industry projects throughout Siberia. For the last 5 years Mr. Deripaska has been on the one hand promoting "cleaner production" in Russia and China based on "carbon-free" energy of his hydropower cascade and on the other hand actively, though not successfully pursued development of coal industry to export coal and electricity to China. The Report by AIPP, FPP and IUCN released in mid-November that appeals to the aluminum industry to respect indigenous peoples’ rights, is fully applicable to the Deripaska’s business[11]. But, in reality this single businessman, owner of the Irkutsk Hydro, holds the keys to better climate adaptation on Lake Baikal and helping it to overcome the crisis, but the world is yet to see him and his company recognizing this global responsibility. To the contrary his energy company wants regulation rules for the Lake Baikal level to be amended to allow for greater flexibility in electricity generation.

Hopefully these and other lesser actors can reflect on the situation and rethink their roles and strategies regarding climate adaptation in the Lake Baikal Basin and energy development in Northeast Asia .

4. Alternatives in renewable energy and adaptive management of lake ecosystems

Participants of the IX International Conference "Rivers of Siberia and Far East" expressed great concern regarding the plans of the Mongolian government to regulate the river Selenga and its tributaries in connection with the possible construction of Shuren, Orkhon and Eg hydropower stations. Implementation of these plans is incompatible with the international obligations of states for the conservation of the unique ecosystem of Lake Baikal and the delta of the river Selenga flowing into it.

We support requirements set forward by the 39th World Heritage Commission and especially States Parties of the Russian Federation and Mongolia to jointly develop a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) for any future hydropower and water management projects which could potentially affect Lake Baikal, taking into account any existing and planned projects on the territory of both countries. We see climate adaptation as a central issue in such joint SEA, helping to avoid competition and promote cooperation in safeguarding resilience and ecosystem services of freshwater systems. We call on climate-related finance institutions to devote resources and recruit international expertize to support such a task.

We are gravely concerned that the new energy Policy of Mongolia(2015) favors government sponsored development of coal-thermal and hydropower plans over already approved solar and wind parks. Given the fact that the technical potential in wind and solar energy of Mongolia is at least 3000 greater than technically feasible hydropower we call on the Mongolian government, WB, ADB, Silk Belt financial mechanisms and other and foreign investment agencies to rethink energy development policies. An Analysis of Alternatives for the planned hydropower projects should be conducted. This analysis should look at all different energy supply options and their environmental costs based on Mongolia’s developmental resources, including coal, wind, solar, pumped-storage and hydropower. Transboundary opportunities to improve energy system efficiency through Silk Road and Steppe Path cooperation policies and development of Asia SuperGrid should be fully considered, especially now as China , Mongolia and Russia countries signed a joint comprehensive "Roadmap for Cooperation" and "Economic Corridor Agreement" focused on energy and transport sectors. Any rigorous Analysis of Alternatives would likely show that given Mongolia’s fragile and weak water systems, hydropower in Mongolia would be the "dirtiest" (most impactful) and least sustainable non-fossil energy source one could build.

60 000 people have already signed a petition asking Mongolia, Russia and China leadership[12] to use their unique capabilities to support solar and wind energy development in Mongolia instead of hydropower dams and coal thermal plants.

This Appeal was written in fulfillment of decisions made by Sosnovka Coalition of Environmental and Indigenous Groups of Siberia and the Fareast and the IX International Conference "Rivers of Siberia and Far East" that took place at Lake Baikal in November 2015

Contacts for additional information : Eugene Simonov,

Vladimir Tchouprov, Greenpeace Russia +79031294651,

Dr. Sergey Shapkhaev of BRO for Baikal,