The plan to divert Siberian water to China gets showered in criticism

Altai floodwater could be sent to parched Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, says Russian agriculture minister.

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Water becomes a commodity, and with time it will become more valuable than oil. Picture: Alexandra Kunts

Some 70 million cubic metres of water could be sold to China, rising to one billion cubic metres, said Alexander Tkachev during a meeting in Baijing, but his proposal has led to mixed reactions, including alarm from ecologists.

There are warnings that the scheme would deprive the Ob River – the seventh longest in the world – of water when navigation has already faced problems in recent years.

‘We are ready to offer the project of the transfer of fresh water from the Altai region of Russia through Kazakhstan to arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China,’ said the minister. In the near future we will hold consultations with our colleagues from Kazakhstan on this issue.’ He said the plan could be implemented without any damage to ecology.

Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, an economist, environmentalist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned: ‘To declare the global plans of the transfer of fresh water to China, without detailed calculations, is total folly.

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Alexander Tkachev: ‘We are ready to offer the project of the transfer of fresh water from the Altai region of Russia through Kazakhstan to arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China’. Picture: Yuga.ru

‘Firstly, in order to deliver water from the Altai region through Kazakhstan to China, there needed a lot of technical work on the laying the channels. It would require big funds and the price of the water will be very high. Almost certainly this project is simply unprofitable.

‘The second point – the officials too easily to decide on passing the excesses of fresh water. Of course, there are floods, high water – but do not forget that not everything is good with the water in the Ob basin.

‘In addition, China is taking the water from the Black Irtysh, that means that our country will eventually lose this water. In general, historical experience suggests that trying to redirect the water somewhere is not the best idea. Much more important is to keep the water and to improve the technology in which water is used.’

Communist deputy Professor Vladimir Kashin, chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Ecology, said: ‘This is absolutely not Tkachev’s theme. Let him better think about bread, milk, and meat. We have the specialists who are involved in water issues. We ourselves have a lot of problems.’

He pointed to the falling level in Lake Baikal, which contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater. ‘Let him think instead about Baikal.  Maybe it makes sense today to transfer some water there, but he is concerned about China.’

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Gilevsky reservior in Altai region, in operation since 1979. Pictures: The Siberian Times, lastocknata, Posibiri.ru

The key to the Tkachev masterplan – unveiled at a meeting with Chinese Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu – is utilising the Gilevsky reservoir in Altai region, in operation since 1979, and the Kulundinsky ‘channel’ built in the decade to 1983.

Other experts were more positive about the plan. Professor Stepan Svartsev, a hydrogeology expert at Tomsk State University, said: ‘Water is the same resource as oil, gas, gold, and sooner or later we will start to sell it.

‘We already sell it in stores; more and more people buy it. Water becomes a commodity, and with time it will become more valuable than oil. We should be ready for it. Our country has very large reserves, and certain volumes could be sold.’

But it was vital to preserve the environment, he said. ‘If we transport it in open channels – it will evaporate and there will be salting of soil. If we chose closed tubes – the problem disappears, but the water is more expensive because the tubes are expensive,’ he said.

Gennady Baryshnikov, deputy head of the natural resources and geo-ecology department at Altai State University, said it was vital to consult citizens and experts on such a scheme. ‘If we are offered such project, there must be public and scientific hearings,’ he said.

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‘The Kulundinsky channel was built to irrigate the Kulunda steppes and the water is taken from Ob. Pictures: Yury Skurydin, Dmitry Medvedev

‘This project is impossible to implement without the opinion of the scientific community of the Altai region. Tkachev’s words were a complete surprise for us. ‘So far, I cannot imagine how it can be done. It can affect the interests of different countries – the water should be carried through Kazakhstan to China, but China gets large volumes of water for its cotton fields from the Black Irtysh River, which flows through Kazakhstan.’

He warned: ‘If you take water from the Ob River, it will have an impact on the Novosibirsk water reservoir. It is yet unclear what will the transfer of fresh water from the Altai region to Kazakhstan will entail. It requires a very detailed consideration.’

He stressed: ‘Nowhere and never before the issue of the transfer of water from the Altai region transfer to China. If the water will be taken from Kulundinsky channel, as it was announced, then the question arises, what to do with navigation downstream of Ob.

‘The Kulundinsky channel was built to irrigate the Kulunda steppes and the water is taken from Ob. Just a few years ago, the water level of Ob was so low that transport ships were unable to carry the goods to the north of Tomsk and Tyumen region.’

Tkachev appeared to soft pedal after negative reactions to his plans. ‘There are no plans to implement this project in the near future,’ he said. ‘The issue of supplying fresh water to China can only be considered provided that Russia’s interests are respected unconditionally, not least from the environmental perspective.’

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Record flooding in Altai region in 2014. Pictures: Andrey Lukovsky, EMERCOM, Valery Samsonov

Nationalist blogger El-Myurid (El Murid) warned sarcastically: ‘Russia is steadily moving into the Middle Ages, transforming its exports into the standard set of ‘grain, wood, hemp and furs’.

‘The less processed the exported raw materials, the noisier the reports about victories. Now water has become a commodity too. It is a high-tech product. Space technology.’

Opposition blogger Andrei Malgin recalled a Soviet mega-project that was never carried out. ‘Remember the project to divert Siberian rivers to irrigate Central Asia, which was well-publicised in the 1970s but was not implemented in the end?

‘According to the assurances of Party bosses, Central Asia was supposed to have been transformed and have flourished. It seems that this project has come back to life. However, it is China that will flourish.’

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