Sunday, September 14, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia Has Lots of Fresh Water But Much of It Isn’t Drinkable

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 14 – Russia has the largest amount of fresh water of any country on earth, but much of the water coming out of taps in that country’s cities and towns contains so many harmful substances that many people there are turning to filters and bottled water, two choices that experts say do not always work as intended.
In a survey of expert opinion about the state of the water supply in Russia, Yekaterina Metrofanova writes in “Argumenty i fakty Vostochnoy Siberi” that the situation is truly “paradoxical:” Russia has enormous reserves of fresh water but is experiencing “a severe deficit of pure drinking water” (
This situation is particularly acute not only in places long known for high levels of pollution like Kaliningrad, Russia’s non-contiguous region on the Baltic Sea, she writes, but in places like the North and the Far East where most residents and outsiders assume the water supply is in far better shape.
In Irkutsk oblast, which is located at the southern edge of Lake Baikal, the largest by volume fresh water body of water in the world, she continues, nearly one in six of the 353 sources of water for residents does not correspond to official standards of chemical and/or micro-biological content.
But despite the fears expressed by many ecological activists, she says, local experts say that the quality of water has not gotten significantly worse in recent years, although they concede it has not gotten better, including in schools, 4.5 percent of which are supplied with water that could harm the health of pupils.
The reasons for this situation are numerous, but the three most important are surface reservoirs not adequately protected from runoff from industrial sites and sewage disposal units, the lack of modern treatment facilities at many of them, and especially the poor quality of pipes carrying the water from the reservoirs and treatment facilities to end users.
The problem of surface reservoirs is a longstanding one in Russia as well as in other countries, but the problems in the Russian case are particularly acute because in Soviet times, reservoirs were constructed near industrial plants in order to save money on the transport of water, an arrangement that virtually guaranteed contamination.
These difficulties are compounded in Russia today, experts told Metrofanova, because water treatment facilities continue to use outdated technologies that not only do not remove many of the most harmful substances from the water but in fact actually introduce additional ones that may be even more threatening to health than those they remove.
And finally, more than half of the pipes in the city of Irkutsk, for example, are in such sad shape that they cannot prevent the water they carry from being contaminated with chemicals and biological elements before it reaches consumers because industrial plants are not careful in disposing waste and because the city’s sewage system is in equally bad shape.
With rising public awareness of these problems, the “Argumenty i fakty” journalist says, more and more people are using filters or bottled water in the hopes of avoiding problems. But, she reports, there are serious problems with both of these technologies, at least as they are being applied in Russia at the present time.
On the one hand, filters must be appropriate for the kind of water that will pass through them. In Russia, there is often a one-size-fits-all approach that means filters which work well in areas with hard water are the only ones available in other regions, like Siberia and the Far East, with soft water. And in both places, existing filters often remove valuable mineral salts as well.
And on the other, bottled water is not the panacea that many people think it is, Metrofanova says. Much of it is just as poorly handled and filtered as that coming out of the tap, and some of it as a result of more intense processing lacks the minerals and nutrients which good fresh water can supply.
That represents a far larger danger than most Russians recognize, she says, because people who consume such water do not understand that they will lose nutrients and minerals as the water passes through their systems and leaches it from their bodies, thus leaving them less well protected than before.
Given that, Metrofanova says, it is critically important that Russia upgrade its reservoirs, water treatment facilities, and pipeline systems. But such things, even though they would help to prolong the lives of Russians, seldom attract the attention of political leaders who typically prefer to spend money on more high-profile issues.

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