UNESCO may designate Lake Baikal as “in danger”

The Moscow Times reports that UNESCO are becoming so concerned about the environmental safety of Lake Baikal that they are considering putting the Lake, already a World Heritage site, on their “in danger” list. And not just that, but they may even do so without the permission of the Russian government:

An evaluation team from the World Heritage Committee plans to visit the lake in late October and make a final recommendation on the designation, said Mechtild Rossler, the World Heritage Center’s Europe director.

“We’ve made our position to the Russian authorities clear” about the threats facing the lake, Rossler said by telephone from Paris. “The question is whether they want to take their obligations as signatories to the World Heritage Convention seriously.”

Up until now, a wood pulping mill in Baikalsk had been the main environmental problem facing Baikal, but UNESCO is becoming increasingly worried about the impact that the building of an estimated 500 illegal homes on the lakefront, and the proposed construction of an oil pipeline just north of the lake, the route of which is so close to the shore that:

“By Transneft’s own assessment, an oil leak along the present route could reach the lake in 20 minutes. The technology doesn’t exist to respond to a leak that quickly,” said Greenpeace’s Vazhenov.

The Pearl of Siberia, as Baikal is often called, is a place that is close to the heart of many Russians, a site of which they are extraordinarily, and justifiably, proud. Politically, it is by far the most sensitive environmental issue in Russia today. As in so many Soviet bloc countries, environmental movements were the fore-runners of protest against communist government, and moves to protect Baikal were an instrumental part of the development of environmental groups in the Soviet Union. Despite the government’s attempts in recent years to demonise environmental groups – particularly foreign groups, such as Greenpeace – an issue of this magnitude will, I believe, be viewed sympathetically by all Russians, and not just Siberians.

The Russian government is often – and rightly – accused of being in thrall to the oil industry but, in this case, I cannot imagine that they will let an oil pipeline run so close to the Lake, even if the cost of developing a different route does increase Transneft’s costs. In the face of a high level of public concern, for the Russian government to be seen to sitting idly by while greedy developers destroy Russia’s natural jewel would be a huge blow to its prestige and, if an external organisation were to so publicly shame them, the Russian government would be humiliated.

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