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'Baikal tributaries drain an area the size of Britain and France combined'
Marc Di Duca

Baikal 'no longer the cleanest lake on Earth'

By Olga Gertcyk
04 August 2015

Scientist warns of 'environmental disaster' due to 'irreversible' pollution in world's deepest and oldest lake.

Diseased sponge  - some giving the appearance of  'disgusting black slime' - is rife in parts of the lake; elsewhere household waste has been thrown into Baikal in 'massive' quantities. Picture: Mikhail Grachev

Humans are having a dire impact on the lake, which Russians have long boasted as one of the cleanest - if not the cleanest - on the planet, says expert  Dr Oleg Timoshkin, researcher from the Limnology Institute of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Irkutsk. 

The respected Baikal analyst paints a worrying, even alarming, account of the damage to its waters. 

Diseased sponge  - some giving the appearance of  'disgusting black slime' - is rife in parts of the lake; elsewhere household waste has been thrown into Baikal in 'massive' quantities;  the underwater lake habitat around the resort of Listvyanka in Irkutsk region amounts to an 'environmental disaster'; while at Severobaikalsk water samples showed the lake was 'dead' and facing 'intensive bacteriological decay'.

Warning of the human imprint on the lake, he said: 'Baikal can't swallow it all. The lake is no longer the cleanest lake on the Earth, at least, (around the) the coastal line.'

'Water preparation and cleaning facilities of the towns close to Baikal haven't been functioning properly for the last three years, if not any longer. And all this filth gets into Baikal. It is not even possible to drink water of the rivers running through the local villages."

He warned: 'Small rivers that flow into (Baikal) showed unsatisfactory results regarding bacterias which are indicators of faecal pollution. It's simply a 'no' to drink water from these rivers.'

Algae in Baikal


Algae in Baikal

'I don't think the algae causes the death but they do go hand-in-hand with the disease. I'm quite sure that human factor is huge here.' Picture: Oleg Timoshkin 

Dr Timoshkin warned: 'To reverse the situation with the algae, it is necessary to build new water cleaning facilities and revamp those now existing.' He explained: 'Baikal deserves a particular programme for monitoring its unique ecosystem given the unique features of the lake's endemic species.'

Famously the lake has 1,700 species of plants and animals, of which two-thirds cannot be found elsewhere in the world. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

'The lake is like a body: if my heart's not okay, I don't go to, say, a dermatologist,' he said. 'The same applies here - there is one system suffering, but experts on something else are coming to check on it.'

Previously, near Bolshiye Koty an infestation of diseased sponge was spotted, he said. 'It was yellowish-brownish and smelled disgusting. Later we discovered that mass-disease and death of these creatures is happening almost all over Baikal.'

He warned: 'Normally, sponge is green, shiny and brings out the freshness of the water, sores and strains are not very typical of them. 

'It is possible to assume that it's happening because of green-blue saprophyte algae. But in my opinion, sponges first develop diseases, die, and only then the notorious algae pops up. 

'I don't think the algae causes the death but they do go hand-in-hand with the disease. I'm quite sure that human factor is huge here.'

He said: 'Imagine very beautiful beaches and the coast covered with disgusting black slime. It's something totally out-of-place for Baikal, it resembles black oil waves. The coast has never looked like this before. The amounts are crazy, don't believe it someone says anything different.'

There are acute problems close to urban settlements around the lake. 

Algae in Baikal


Algae in Baikal


Baikal algae


Baikal algae

'Imagine very beautiful beaches and the coast covered with disgusting black slime. It's something totally out-of-place for Baikal, it resembles black oil waves.' Pictures: Mikhail Grachev, Limnological Institute, Boris Slepnev

'We discovered mass emission of putrescent algae on the coast,' he said. It used to happen  in five areas earlier - and all of them were related to human activity. First of all, Severobaikalsk, it's crazy there, as if household waste from nearby houses was thrown there in massive amounts. 

'One of the research team members even got stuck in it breast-deep. We discovered that there is about 1,500 tons of this 'surface material' on the coast alone, and three or four times more underwater. 

'The same is happening in Barguzin Bay near Maximikha, as well as the very southern point of the lake - Kultuk', and in some other bays. 'During the recent expedition, we also discovered the two most problematic areas of Baikal. The first is Listvyanka.'

The changes in the biocenosis on the floor of the lake are 'already irreversible, at least in the near future.

'It is possible to say that an environmental disaster happened at the bottom of Listvennichny Bay, and it will require at least half of century to change things. 

'The second area affected most severely is 8-10km west of Severobaikalsk. There is not even oxygen in the water taken from somewhere  on the local coast. Baikal is dead there. 

'Arguably, there is intensive bacteriological decay going on there.'

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