Russia raises its concerns over impact on Lake Baikal of Mongolia’s hydropower plans

Prime minister raises the issue on sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Ulaanbaatar.

The concern is expressed amid fears that before any planned hydro developments come on stream, Baikal – the oldest and deepest lake in the world – has entered a new period of naturally low water levels which may last for a quarter of century. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree according to which was set a new official ‘minimum’ level for Baikal is 455.5 metres above sea level. The previous level set in 2001 was 456 metres.

Mongolia has announced plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants, including one on the Selenga (Shuren) River, and two on Selenga tributaries – the Orkhon and Egyin Gol. Russian officials see this as posing a ‘serious ecological threat’ to Lake Baikal. Up to 50% of its annual water inflow is from the Selenga.

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A map and a space shot of river Selenga flowing into lake Baikal

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko said in advance of the session in Ulaanbaatar: ‘We will certainly speak about Baikal ecology and will continue to discuss collaboration in the Russia-Mongolia-China format and a number of other issues.’

The Russian Natural Resources and Ecology Ministry opposes the Mongolian hydropower project. As previously reported, it managed to persuade the World Bank to put a freeze on financing of the Mongolian hydropower plants and offered Mongolia alternative supplies of Russian electric power.

Expanding the capacity of the Gusinoozersk-Darkhan power transmission line is seen as an option.

Another possibility is to make Mongolia a transit country for Russian electric power supply to China.

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River Selenga. Pictures: Vyacheslav Rezunov

Lake Baikal is a national heritage of Russia, on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and Selenga is the main tributary of this lake, which means the construction of a dam needs to be coordinated with the Russian government and UNESCO.

The lake contains around 20% of the globe’s unfrozen fresh water. In setting a new official level for Baikal, a Russian government document states: ‘The low-water period continues in 2016 in the basins of Lake Baikal and the Angara-Yenisei reservoir.

‘The level of water in the Angara-Yenisei reservoir did not recover during the 2015-2016 autumn-winter season, thus making possible another threat of an emergency situation in the region, caused by the low water.’

TASS reported citing the government: ‘The minimum mark parameter will help ensure stable thermal power and water supply for households and industrial facilities in the downstream reach of the Irkutsk HPP during the low water content period.

‘At the same time, the mark of 457.85 metres will correspond to the statutory threshold level of safety at industrial and hydropower facilities during the high water period.’

Since 1962, the water level of Lake Baikal has been observed to drop below the 456-metre mark 11 times. The record low mark was 455.27 metres in 1982.