Vienna, November 25 – Two United Russia politicians have called for selling water from Russian rivers to the parched countries of Central Asia, an example of the unfortunate tendency of Moscow officials to pursue economic modernization by means of “the reincarnation of gigantist projects of the Soviet epoch.”
In a lead article today, the editors of “Vedomosti” suggest that these proposals, from Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov may seem attractive as a means of “giving work to tens of thousands of people and filling up the government treasury” but are likely to prove only another means for giving more money to those close to the leadership.
Last week, the paper reports, Gryzlov proposed “exporting water” from the Ob and Irtysh to countries in Central Asia which are experiencing shortages, thus treating water like any other “key natural resource” like oil, gas or metals,” a project that he said could bring real profits to Russia after only “five to ten years” (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2009/11/25/219771
And Moscow’s increasingly populist Luzhkov, the newspaper’s editors continued, even specified how that would be done. As he has done on occasion in the past, Luzhkov called for reversing the flow of Siberian rivers, an idea floated but ultimately rejected by both tsarist and Soviet-era officials.
The Russian Federation, as the paper notes, has 22 percent of the world’s reserves of fresh water, but unfortunately for that country and its neighbors, most of them are located far from significant population centers and flow away from rather than toward the increasingly large population centers to the south.
Given that, it is not surprising that commentators and officials have often considered changing the direction of their flows. The last such serious effort to push that idea was rejected in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev on ecological and cost grounds. But Luzhkov says that that decision was made by “pseudo-ecologists and the ignorant” who wanted to undermine the Soviet state.
The plans that Gorbachev and his regime rejected and that Luzhkov and his supporters want to revive have some serious problems, the “Vedomosti” editors point out. When Soviet builders in 1971 used nuclear explosives to carve out one channel for this project, they unintentionally created a radioactive lake in Perm oblast.
And plans for the main canal with a length of 2550 kilometers and a width of 130 to 300 meters were so enormous – the Don is only 2000 kilometers long and the Dnepr only 2200 – were so beyond the capacity of the country to carry out that most people who examined the subject concluded river diversion of this kind would never work.
But, “Vedomosti” notes, the fact that the Soviet plan was never built did not mean that it did not benefit some people. Just to get it started, Moscow organized 48 special research institutes and112 scientific centers, at a cost of millions if not billions of Soviet-era rubles, for a project the best experts suggested would cost perhaps 100 billion of those rubles.
Among “the illiterate and ignorant people” of whom Luzhkov speaks, the paper says, were the writers Viktor Astafyev, Sergey Zalygin, Valentin Rasputin and Vasily Belov and scholars led by Academicians Aleksandr Yanshin and Dmitry Likhachev, who opposed the idea not only because of its cost but because of its certain harm to the environment.
If Luzhkov and Gryzlov get their way, the paper warns, the project now will be even more expensive and possibly even more harmful. The ecological threats have “in no way disappeared,” and current estimates of cost range from 25 to 40 billion US dollars, without taking into account any purchase of land!
Moreover, although China seems to be having some success with river diversion – and Beijing’s efforts may explain the appearance of these Russian proposals -- most efforts to move in that direction have failed – the Snow River project in Australia in the 1980s is a clear example – and the situation with regard to the countries in Central Asia is far from promising.
According to “Vedomosti,” “more than 90 percent of the irrigation canals” in that region are not lined with concrete and thus sending water there would be “pouring it into the sand,” even if the money could be found to pay for the entire project. But, if Soviet experience is any guide, Luzhkov and Gryzlov may not be thinking about that.
They may be focusing on the way in which even planning for such “gigantist” projects that will never be built can become an enormous source of money for officials corrupt or otherwise. To the extent that their ideas have an audience in the ruling party, some of the worst features of the country’s past may soon be recapitulated in the future in this area as well.