The lake's level is falling, and Mongolian hydro plans would disrupt inflows, and could cause a 'tsunami' of water, say campaigners.
'Baikal might share the destiny of the Aral Sea.' Picture: Zhanat Kulenov
Newspaper Izvestia this week was blunt in assessing the eco-damage threat to Baikal, a natural reservoir which contains around 20% of the world's unfrozen freshwater.
'Baikal might share the destiny of the Aral Sea,' it stated. 'Construction of three hydro power stations on the Selenga River and its tributaries can cause the unique lake to dry out.'
The 25 million year old lake - a UNESCO world heritage site - is 'on the edge of environmental catastrophe and if certain measures are not taken, it might disappear just like the Aral sea.'
The impact of proposed Mongolian hydro projects could also be to threaten the Buryatian capital city, Ulan-Ude, in the event of an accident to one of three planned dams.
Environmental activist Sergey Shapkhayev warned: 'Potential damage from the third hydro power station which will be located on the Eg River (a Selenga tributary) could cause a huge catastrophe. Hydrological experts believe that this power station is the most dangerous of all.
The Aral, once one of the four largest lakes in the world, has substantially dried up due mainly to Soviet planners diverting rivers to use for irrigation projects. Pictures: Anna Baranova, Satellite images USGS
'This power station will be located in the seismically active part of Mongolia. And any seismic activity can cause all the stored water to wash away part of Mongolia and in half a day it would reach Ulan-Ude' - a city with a population of 415,000. At the same time, speed of water will be compatible to tsunami.'
The warnings come amid new hopes in Russia that ways can be found to persuade Mongolia not to go ahead with the the hydro schemes - see our earlier story here.
Izvestia said that the claims about an Aral-like denuding of Baikal were aired at a closed doors meeting at the Energy Ministry. Crucial to the dams not being built are an offer acceptable to Mongolia of guaranteed cheap energy - from Russia.
Another session held at the Ministry of Natural Resources in April heard that the Mongolian plans would lead to atmospherical, biological, hydrological and geological changes.
'The quality of water, its ice and temperature regime will also change,' according to this account. 'Additional emission of greenhouse gases will increase the threat of flooding of some areas. The migration of animals, rare fish species in particular, will also be negatively affected. Apart from that, the implementation of these hydro-technical projects will cause additional seismic, epidemiological and other risks.'
'Potential damage from the third hydro power station which will be located on the Eg River (a Selenga tributary) could cause a huge catastrophe. Pictures: Eg River Hydroelectric Project
Other warns suggested an acute risk of pollution in the Selenga feeding into Baikal. And separately, the existing fall of the lake's level has already led to wells running dry located as far as 300 kilometres from Baikal.
Residents of 13 settlements on the Baikal shore are also facing difficulties with water supply.
Oleg Lebedev, a member of the Higher Environmental Council, and a deputy of the Russian parliament, said: 'We have unique scientific potential and expertise in construction, and that is why it is possible to transfer power from Siberia and develop new export agreements.
'Otherwise less than 1,000 GW of power will destroy the largest unfrozen water reservoir on the Earth, (and) will destroy the delta of the Selenga River and cut access to fresh water in Buryatia and Irkutsk region.'
Andrey Grozin, of the Institute of the CIS countries, warned: 'The hydrological resources of Mongolia are not sufficient to produce significant power capacities. The three rivers discussed now do not have particular potential to generate enough power to sort out the electricity deficit.
'The three rivers in Mongolia discussed now do not have particular potential to generate enough power to sort out the electricity deficit.' Picture: Dr Jaroslav Vrba/UNESCO-IHP, lusika33, Rivers without Borders
'Of course, it's easier to build a hydro power station - green energy - but it's clearly an exaggeration to consider that hydro power can become main power source for Mongolia.'
Irina Maksimova, scientific secretary of the Baikal Scientific Council, claimed an unprecedented 'catastrophe' would befall Baikal.
The comparison with the Aral Sea - which was a giant endorheic lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - appears far-fetched even allowing for a grave threat now facing Baikal.
The Aral, once one of the four largest lakes in the world, has substantially dried up due mainly to Soviet planners diverting rivers to use for irrigation projects. Yet before it suffered grievous ecological damage, the volume of water in the Aral was some 1089 cubic kilometres. By 2007 it has reduced to just 75 cubic kilometres.
By comparison Baikal - covering an area larger than Belgium - contains some 23,615 cubic kilometres of water.
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