Analysis

Balancing act in Lake Baikal

  • Russia
  • Political and Economic Risk Consulting
Balancing act in Lake Baikal


Control Risks Alfa Fellow Christopher Joliffe recently visited the world’s deepest lake, Baikal, in southern Siberia, and discovered how local concerns about the environment mirror growing environmental awareness across Russia.

The off-peak season is one of the best times to explore Lake Baikal. During April, the ice of the planet’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake is just beginning to melt, and it is still possible to travel its frozen length of just over 600km via hovercraft. The area is also devoid of its summertime crowds. However, with the lake holding 20% of the Earth’s unfrozen freshwater, it is no wonder that some are trying to find ways to cash in on Baikal’s natural attributes.

Nestled between national forests and the Siberian steppe, and with its unique wildlife -- from the historically prized omul fish, to plump Baikal seals -- the region is a popular location for adventure-seeking tourists. The lake is a far-flung destination for many, and most visitors come from East Asia, with the overwhelming majority from China. The prevalence of Chinese visitors was evident, from the wall of an isolated Irish pub covered with yuan notes, to the Coca-Cola advertisements and property rental signs written in Mandarin alongside the major roads. At first glance, the impact of the Russian authorities’ efforts to strengthen Sino-Russia ties is evident on the ground in this southern corner of Siberia. But what appears to be a blooming relationship in political discourse does not translate into local support for the exploitation of the lake’s resources.

Concern about the impact that Chinese-funded tourist, industrial projects and other ventures might have on the environment of the lake has led local activists to oppose proposed plans that they allege are likely to irreversibly alter the ecosystem of the lake. Furthermore, some activists do not see as much financial return for the region from such projects as they would like, perceiving the Chinese-backed initiatives as largely catering for tourists from China. On more than one occasion my various guides retold, with a sense of accomplishment, of a recent case in which a China-backed project to bottle water from the lake was ruled illegal by the district court. Local activists had opposed the project from the outset. Opposition from some sections of the public to the increased presence of Chinese money in towns around the lake also led to an online petition earlier this year calling on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to ban the sale of land to Chinese wanting to invest in the area.

The Russian authorities seem to have other priorities, however. Despite Putin declaring in 2017 that the preservation of Lake Baikal is a “government priority”, a recent draft proposal by Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry included a significant lowering of the area’s ecological standards, thereby reducing the need to improve costly purification technologies. This instead allows the cheaper construction of wastewater treatment plants, arguably at the expense of environmental standards.

The local opposition around Baikal is representative of an increasing willingness among people across Russia to protest policies that they see as harmful to the environment and public health. Although protests in Russia over pension reforms and general corruption have fizzled out in the past year, environmental concerns clearly remain a sensitive issue that people are willing to repeatedly take to the streets for. Since early 2018, protests attracting several thousand people have taken place across towns in Russia’s far north against changes to the country’s waste management systems.

The same trend can be seen elsewhere in the former Soviet space. In Belarus, local activists have for months taken to the streets in the centre of the city of Brest to demonstrate against a Chinese-funded battery factory being built outside the city. In Kazakhstan, plans announced a decade ago to build a mountain resort in the place of Kok Zhailau national park have faced opposition from local activists. Governments must balance these concerns with their desire to attract foreign investment and drive growth.

The Baikal environmental cause reappeared on my radar a few weeks later when I was back in the capital Moscow. A court in May fined famous Russian stylist Sergei Zverev for staging a one-person picket outside the Kremlin in the capital in protest the Chinese bottling plant near Baikal, which is his hometown. The star is an unlikely activist. His taking up the cause underscores the growing reach of environmental concerns across the country.

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