In Russia, The World’s Largest Lake Takes On The World Bank and Mongolian Power Build-Up
The biggest fresh water lake in the world is under attack…again…this time from Mongolian power companies with help from the World Bank looking to build two hydroelectric dams that draw from an important Russian river.
Last week, the World Bank held public hearings in Russia to discuss environmental impact studies around Lake Baikal in Russia, moving two mid-sized hydroelectric dams in Mongolia on Selenga River flowing into Lake Baikal another day closer to fruition. Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so anything going up there now requires United Nations oversight.
“I’ve been to the hearings about the Mongolian projects. People don’t want dams along Lake Baikal, even in remote upstream areas,” says Eugene Simonov, international coordinator for Rivers Without Borders. “Russians would resist even more if someone proposed a dam on the Selenga River inside the country,” he says of the lake’s most important tributary. The Selenga watershed area is shared between Russia and Mongolia and is a major point of contention for building the dams. The delta is mainly flooded meadowland and is considered a Ramsar Convention protected site.
Over the last two years, at least 8 consultation meetings were set up between people in nearby towns in Russia and Mongolia and other stakeholders with the officials in charge of Shuren, Orkhon and Egiin Gol river dams projects.
In that period, Russian and Mongolian environmental groups filed complaints with the World Bank, trying to get them to balk at the project. Their offensive really began in earnest in the first half of 2015 when the World Bank’s Inspection Panel team arrived to meet with stakeholders. The U.N. World Heritage Committee also got involved and in May 2015 requested th
at both sides submit impact studies and conservation updates regarding the Baikal basin to better assist with the fallout should those dams get built.
It’s an uphill battle, but wheels are in motion.
The Bank has already loaned the Mongolan Ministry of Finance around $13 million of the $25 million planned just to finance studies on the projects. As of November, and after two years of talking with conservationists and local communities, these projects have moved from a World Bank overall risk assessment rating of “substantial” to “high”. If you were to color code it, the World Bank’s thoughts on the dams have gone from cautionary yellow to fire engine red.
It is hard to see how that risk comes down and makes this an attractive deal.
Mongolia’s Mining Infrastructure Investment Support Project, the group working with the World Bank on impact studies, was unavailable for immediate comment.
Environmental hot spots from the Brazilian Amazon to China’s Yangtze River are full of stories about major hydroelectric projects that had the attention of global NGOs and plenty of doubts among the locals, only to see trucks move mountains of dredged dirt out of river beds to change the course of natural history. Lake Baikal is not immune from the same outcome.
Mongolia is developing and needs electricity. As it stands, 30% of their energy is imported from Russia and China. Mongolia says these projects can chip away at that. Plus the Mongolians won’t have to deal with the environmental fall out because Lake Baikal is not their problem. It’s Russia’s.
Energy is a way forward for Mongolia. Around 80% of the country’s electricity is derived from coal, with 3% coming from hydropower. This is a largely pastoral country, where less than half of rural inhabitants have electricity. And 49% of them use animal dung as a source of fire to cook food, according to the World Health Organization. A hydroelectric power station isn’t going to change that, but it shows how behind the times Mongolia is in electricity distribution.