Vienna, June 5 – President Dmitry Medvedev’s order at the end of May for the Russian government to draw up plans for a new hydroelectric dam on the Volga is already drawing fire from ecologists and church leaders and generating anger among members of various ethnic groups, parts of whose historical homelands will be flooded if the dam is built.
But whether that will happen remains to be seen, given the way in which opponents of dams in other parts of the country have mobilized and succeeded in slowing similar projects, the success ecologists have had in recent court cases, and new polls showing rising concerns among many Russians about the difficult ecological situation in their country today.
Russian news agencies reported at the end of May that Medvedev had formed a special government commission, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the heads of the Chuvash Republic, Nizhny Novgorod oblast, and Mari El, to develop plans for the construction of a hydroelectric station at Cheboksary that would increase the depth of the Volga there to 68 meters.
Officials in Chuvashia have pushed for this, even though such a dam will flood part of his republic and parts of the adjoining federal units, because they believe that the new reservoir will improve the quality of drinking water available in the region, increase electric power production, and allow for better navigation of the river (www.niann.ru/?id=351813).
But officials and the population elsewhere disagree. Nizhny Novgorod governor Valery Shantsev thought he had a deal that no project of this kind would be considered over the next ten years or that a small dam would be proposed, and Nizhny had enlisted Federation Council chairman Sergey Mironov to block any efforts to do so.
Ecologists and local officials are even more outspoken. The ecologists say the expanded reservoir such a dam would create would represent “a social, ecological and economic catastrophe.” And local people are upset that the dam would flood four administrative districts in Chuvashia, two in Mari El, and 12 in Nizhny Novgorod.
Also upset about this project is the Russian Orthodox Church. Its Nizhny Novgorod eparchate points out that rising waters from the projected dam would almost certainly destroy “one of the most remarkable monuments of history and culture of the oblast” -- the Makaryev Monastery.
Russian officials, like their Soviet predecessors, have generally assumed that they can order the construction of a dam wherever they want with little or no regard for the attitudes of local people, an attitude that is chronicled in Valentin Rasputin’s influential novel, “Farewell to Matyora.”
But there are three reasons why that confidence may now be misplaced. First, local groups have been extremely successful in attracting the support of national and international ecological groups, something that has slowed if not stopped projects like the one Moscow wants in Evenkia. (On this, see the articles in the brilliantly named website, www.plotina.net/).
Second, such ecological groups have recently achieved some successes in Russian courts, the most notable being a victory on May 27 when a court blocked the start of mining in the Kholodinsky district site near Lake Baikal by Russia’s well-connected Metropol Company
And third, the results of a new poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) show that Russians are increasingly disturbed by the environment in which they live, with 49 percent saying it is “very unsatisfactory” and nine percent calling it “catastrophic” (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/11956.html).
Given all that, Moscow may face a far greater challenge in carrying through on this dam project than it has in the past. Indeed, given the opposition of both the Orthodox Church and Nizhny Novgorod’s well-connected government, the center is likely to have to back down in full or in part in this case, something that will encourage groups elsewhere in Russia as well.
In an unrelated but intriguing development, the US-government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has released satellite photographs which provides the clearest evidence yet that the Aral Sea in Central Asia is about to disappear, with all the social, economic and political consequences that will entail.
The slide show showing the contraction of this sea between 20000 and 2009 is available at www.infox.ru/science/planet/2009/05/20/aral_sea.phtml.