February/March 1990 Issue #4 * ECOLOGIA NEWSLETTER Archive

February/March 1990 Issue #4

Background to the Katun River Project, U.S.S.R. : A Brezhnev-Era Holdover Opposed by Local, National and International Environmental Organizations

A large dam and hydro-electric power plant is currently being planned for the Katun River in the Altai Mountains. Controversy surrounds this plan because of its potential impact on the area's population and eco-system.

The Altai Mountain Range is located in central Asia, where China, Mongolia and the Soviet Union meet. The range runs roughly south and east, inside the Soviet Union and then along the Chinese-Mongolian border. The legendary Mt. Belukh (4506 meters, 14,783 feet) is its highest peak. Originating in the Altai Mountains, the Katun River flows north and slightly west into the Ob River. Geologically, this area is part of the Kuznetsky-Altai ore belt, which contains substantial deposits of mercury, including methyl mercury, as well as cadmium and arsenic. The reservoir area of the proposed dam site is inside the Kuraisk-Sarasinsky mercury zone. This has raised serious questions about the dangers of mercury contamination in the supply of drinking water which would be created by the proposed dam.

Historically, the Katun River valley was an ancient "cradle of civilization" of Scythian and Turkish peoples. Their artifacts, such as petroglyphs and burial mounds, are found throughout the valley. Today it is the home of approximately 65,000 indigenous Altai people, whose language is a member of the Turkic group (similar to Azerbaijani, Kazakh and Uzbek). The Altai are only 29% of the total population of the oblast. Soviet government records indicate that local apartment housing is scarce, villages lack running water and central heating supplies, and only 16% of the homes receive natural gas. The hydroelectric dam would displace one village (550 residents).

The Katun River valley is located within the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast, which is a part of western Siberia, in the Russian Republic. Its capital city , Gorno-Altask, is about 375 kilometers south and slightly east of Novosibirsk.

The idea for a hydroelectric dam project on the Katun River dates back to the 1950s. The argument for it is that it will promote development and raise the standard of living in the area, because of the large amount of construction and the greater energy which would be available. However, analysis of the situation reveals that its primary beneficiaries would not be the local people. Quite the contrary - their wilderness environment, water supplies and traditional way of life would be severely damaged. But the central planners in Moscow and the large bureaucracies still control most of the economic activity in the Soviet Union. They, together with local Communist party leaders, would benefit in many ways from the large amounts of money flowing into the area.

The entrenched leadership of the oblast , including the Chairman of the Gorno-Altai Oblispolkom, are supporters of the project, along with a number of the centralized Soviet Ministries, including Minenergo and some sections of Gosplan, the centralized planning agency. Local opponents include an organization of Greens, a women's movement named "Sisters of Katun", and a number of officials, especially those of Altai nationality. Also active in opposition are a number of Academy scientists, newspapers (including Sovetskaia Rossiia), the Soviet Turkologists' Committee, the Ukrainian Women's Movement, and 22 People's Deputies from the Ukraine. Nikolai Vorontsov, the Chairman of Goskompriroda in Moscow, is also on record as opposing the hydroelectric dam and supporting use of the area for tourism instead. The nation-wide Socio-Ecological Union has strongly condemned the project and is gathering national and international support, declaring 1990 as "The Year of Katun".

Economically, the proposed dam is an example of the centralized bureaucrats' planning for large, inefficient and environmentally destructive projects. The majority of the electricity generated by the dam would probably be transmitted to European Russia, since Siberia has plentiful electricity relative to the population. Thus a significant amount of the electric power would be lost in long-distance transmission. The plant is not needed for local energy needs. The argument is that building the dam would generate jobs for the local community and would raise the standard of living. However, it seems more likely that the project, by providing a huge source of electric power, would attract other industrial development (a lead production facility, for instance), which would further exploit the resources of the area for the benefit of Moscow. In addition, the inefficiency of such a large plant would actually weaken the economy, as it would consume a lot of capital as well as natural resources. Investment of money, time and human effort in designing more energy-efficient machinery and buildings is more likely to improve the economy over the long term.

The opponents of the dam propose an alternative vision for the area. They cite the increasing interest in "eco-tourism" - international travel to sites of natural beauty which provide challenging and unusual settings for outdoor activities. Since 1987, a number of river-rafting and catamaran expeditions down the Katun have drawn groups of Westerners from various areas of the United States of America, as well as from West Germany. There have also been youth exchange progams which link teenagers from the United States and the Soviet Union in river wilderness adventures. American and West German magazines and television have featured the Katun rafting experiences. Development of the Katun River area on this basis would preserve its unique features, while boosting the local economy and local employment, and bringing in foreign currency.

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