Russian government offers stark vision of the country’s embattled environment

Kuzbas An open pit coal mine in the Kuzbass Region. (Photo: John Webster)

A shocking government report released this week says fully 74 percent of Russians live in environmental degradation, that 40 percent shouldn’t be drinking the water coming from their taps, and that the accrued toxic trash and contamination from 340 industrial facilities threaten the lives of 17 million of its citizens.

The report, called A Strategy for Ecological Safety in Russia Until 2025, was signed by President Vladimir Putin on April 19. It offers a surprisingly stark and candid assessment of the country’s poor environmental conditions.

It then furnished forth a reheated list of solutions that Russia’s persecuted and criminalized environmental movement has been urging for years. But the report’s high profile offers hope that some of these suggestions might finally get some prime time play.

One of the report’s franker conclusions is that Russia’s troubled environment is driving up mortality rates, particularly in industrial centers. And that, in turn, is leading to economic losses amounting to 6 percent of the gross domestic product.

frontpageingressimage_Nikelair.jpg Wastelands surrounding the Kola Peninsula industrial town of Nikel. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen for Bellona) Photo: Bellona Archive

The vast majority of Russia’s population, the report says, live on just 15 percent of the country’s total territory – and that territory is considered environmentally unfit. Some 17 million people live in cities coexisting what the report defines as high or very high levels of pollution. The biggest cities and their surroundings continue to be tormented by emissions from industry, energy and transport, and it is in these areas that 74 percent of Russians make their homes.

And the report says that environmental conditions for this majority of the population are only getting worse. Soil turned up by construction and strip mining is not re-cultivated. Such ragged soil is said to cover 75 million hectares. That’s more than half of all of Russia’s arable land, according to World Bank statistics – and represents an area more than twice the size of Western Europe. Fully 1 million hectares of that land can never be used for farming again, meaning an area the size of Ireland is useless.

The situation with Russia’s water sources is disastrous. Industrial pollution, sewage and agricultural runoff have fouled it, and only 11 percent of wastewater is reclaimed and treated to hygienic norms. By the report’s estimation, 40 percent of Russians are drinking and bathing in water that is impotable.

The country has also amassed 30 billion tons of garbage from both industrial and domestic sources, which it adds to on the order of 4 billion tons a year. Some 60 million tons of that is solid domestic waste. Nearly none of this is recycled, leading to yet more bursting landfills and dumps. For comparison, Russia is doing far better than the United States, which produces 240 million tons of solid domestic waste annually, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, but more than 34 percent of that gets recycled.

On top of Russia’s garbage problems, the report notes, are continuing issues of radioactive contamination in the wake of nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and at the Mayak Chemical Combine in 1957. It also highlighted ongoing problems containing oil spills in Russia’s Arctic region.

What has caused these mounting problems?

On the one hand, the report offers an introspective look at the government’s poor financing of environmental protection efforts, and its flagging ability to fund them via enforcement, taxation and imposing adequate fines for polluters. A $530 fine handed last year to Russian industrial crown jewel Norilsk Nickel for poisoning a river in Siberia illustrates how laughable that process is.

But the report undergirds its soul-searching with a familiar bureaucratic dodge: Much of Russia’s pollution is blowing in from other countries.

The report swerves back to reality when it offers up a conclusion that Russia’s overall awareness of ecological problems is low – though it neglects to recognize that Russia’s environmental illiteracy could be wiped out if the government would stop persecuting environmental groups as shadowy foreign agents.

The report poses a broad base of solutions to these woes that, if implemented, would do much, but which also read like a utopian laundry list of goals that have already been suggested numerous times.

First, Russia needs to improve its air and water quality in it biggest and most afflicted cities, the report says, and sanitation authorities must boost efforts to recycle the country’s growing mountains of industrial and domestic waste. It must also address the lingering problems and restore a measure of biodiversity.

This, the report suggests, can be achieved by amending Russian environmental legislation. Industry must also be convinced to turn to ecologically clean production. A large recycling industry must be established, and contaminated territories must be reclaimed.

The authors conclude that the government must offer stricter evaluation of projects that could pose health risks to the population, and the licensing process for industry must be tightened. All of this could be achieved, said the report, through improved oversight and environmental audits.

After such breathtaking candor about the problems, the generalized approaches offered to solve them are anti-climactic. Reaching any of the laudable goals the authors aspire to will be nearly impossible while the government continues to harry the very environmentalists that could help bring them about.

Anna Kireeva

anna@bellona.ru

Charles Digges