By Neil MacFarquhar,
A Russian Lake`s Future Hangs on Tourists and Toilets
BAYKALSK, Russia. Toilets are the talk of Lake Baikal these days, at least among the ecologically minded.
For years, their main bogyman was the Soviet-era Baykalsk Paper and Pulp Mill that sat on the shoreline belching pollutants into the spectacular lake, which contains about one-fifth of the unfrozen freshwater on the earth`s surface. Three years after the plant closed, the fight to preserve the lake has shifted to different battlegrounds.
Some consider the next struggle even harder. It involves changing the daily habits of people who have lived in this distant corner of Siberia for generations, as well as controlling the waxing tide of mostly Chinese tourists for whom the lake has become a romantic destination.
"It was easy to say this plant is to blame, it is bad," said Marina Rikhvanova, 55, who made preserving the lake her lifelong ambition. "It is much harder to say that I am to blame because my toilet is the problem."
The lake, a United Nations World Heritage Site, sits like a giant blue apostrophe on the Siberian map, a narrow rift valley forming the largest, deepest body of freshwater on the planet. Younger generations are far more cognizant that the lake needs protecting, but the mind-set is not yet universal.
"We have raised several generations who look at this differently - from kindergarten they know what Baikal is, that nature needs to be preserved," said Nikolai N. Volodchenkov, 63, a retired, 40-year veteran of the Baikalsky Nature Reserve in the village of Tankhoy. Still charged with feeding two caged sables daily, he revels in the fact that the lake water stopped smelling after the paper mill shut.
The plant was finally shuttered, more for economic than ecological reasons, and now, signs of a profound transformation are visible around Baykalsk, a town of about 13,000 people on the lake`s southern shore. It is trying to molt, shedding the skin of a gritty industrial pocket and replacing it with the look of a health spa. New offerings include downhill skiing with stunning lake views, log cabin hotels and a cornucopia of dried berries gathered from the surrounding woods that can be washed down with organic Siberian teas.
It has a ways to go.
When Ms. Rikhvanova first showed up here in the 1990s demanding that the plant be closed, residents despised her for threatening their only source of jobs. Some resentment still simmers, but many who wanted the security of government factory work moved away, and the outlook shifted.
"If `environmentalist` was a dirty word before, now every resident of Baykalsk says, `I am an environmentalist,`" said Tatiana Gluckman, a sprightly pulp factory employee turned town politician who jousted with Ms. Rikhvanova before becoming her main local ally. "Perhaps I am idealizing a bit, but it is mostly like that."
Ms. Rikhvanova used a $25,000 environmental prize to subsidize nine of 60 projects submitted to a contest she sponsored for residents to create environmentally friendly jobs. "We had to overcome that Soviet inertia and make people believe in themselves," Ms. Gluckman said.
Boris Brisyuk, 63, a fleshy engineer with a red face, is one convert. He left the pulp plant to work at various jobs, including taxi driver and electrician, before deciding in 2015 to start his own business helping people develop their own lines of dried berries and juices.
He walked into an eatery staggering under the weight of shopping bags overflowing with containers of dried berries and bottles of berry extract. "When it comes to the relationship between ecology and being able to live, people still care more about income," he confessed.
The latest environmental measure that has people grumbling is a two-year ban on fishing for omul, a smoked delicacy hawked by fishwives all around the lake.
The biggest environmental concern is the tourist boom, however. The flight from Beijing to Irkutsk is less than three hours. Chinese tourists have been flooding the area since the 2014 collapse in the price of the ruble.
A team of Russian and Chinese investors recently announced plans to spend more than $11 billion developing hotels and other tourist infrastructure. Environmentalists are worried that if the plan materializes it will not just be honky-tonk, but ecologically destructive.
"You cannot have tourists in a place not set up for them," said Vasily I. Sutula, who oversees the 460,000-acre Baikalsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve, after showing off a handsome new lakeside visitors` center where he is weighing adding Chinese labels to the descriptions of flora and fauna. "What is most important is not these Chinese labels, but more toilets, ecological trails, guesthouses."
One of the hardest points to drive home in Russia, with its vast size, is that resources are limited. If land or water was polluted, there was always more elsewhere. It is that attitude that the nature reserve is striving to change.
As the population attracted to the lake swells, environmentalists are focused on the almost total lack of either water purification plants or biological toilets that produce compost instead of wastewater. "Toilets, kitchens - all those pollutants flow into the ground water and then straight into Lake Baikal," Ms. Rikhvanova said.
Large algal blooms have become a scourge in places, although some people argue that they result from lower lake levels brought on by a drought rather than any human factor. Some villagers near the lake have trouble getting water because artesian wells have run dry.
"People think that because they have lived on the Baikal for hundreds of years and there have always been such toilets, it can go on forever," Ms. Rikhvanova said. "There is still insufficient understanding that Lake Baikal is big, but fragile."
Other threats lurk.
The chemicals abandoned when the paper mill closed are seeping into the ground water and will eventually contaminate the lake, according to a study by the Irkutsk region`s Ministry of Natural Resources. Plans by Mongolia to dam the Selenga River, which flows into the lake, are also a Russian concern.
Moscow has taken some measures to protect the lake. Sergey Donskoy, the federal minister of natural resources, said the government would build a new sewage management system in the area, and it is giving more power to the local authorities to execute a federal preservation program.
Far greater grass-roots awareness also helps. The issue of Baikal is the one subject that spontaneously draws thousands of protesters onto the streets when the threat is obvious. A few years ago when Transneft, the state-run pipeline behemoth, proposed building an oil pipeline along the shore, the vociferous public response led President Vladimir V. Putin to order the pipeline moved away from the lake - one of the rare occasions when he bowed to a protest.
Businessmen are trying to create different experiences like green hotels that cultivate seedlings of endangered local plants. The Great Baikal Trail organization attracts thousands of volunteers every summer who help build hiking trails, and it plans to build environmentally friendly toilets.
Together it signals a shift in attitude, but Ms. Rikhvanova called it premature to declare the battle for Lake Baikal complete.
"We have made changes, that is for sure, but for now I cannot say that we have won," she said. "There are too many unresolved problems. For the moment, it does not quite work to shout `Hurrah!`"
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