Vienna, December 16 – Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s push to provide water from the Ob to four regions of Russia and to sell it to two Central Asian countries is “river diversion whatever you call it,” according to one of the scholars who helped kill the plan in 1986 and who is now organizing to oppose Luzhkov’s idea.
Three times in the last six months, Luzhkov has called for transferring water from the Ob to the south, arguing that this is not an updated version of the river diversion that was proposed in Soviet times because it will involve only five to seven percent of the Ob’s flow and will go to four Russian regions as well as to the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
But Sergey Shatokhin, an a senior scholar at the Russian government’s Economics Academy, says Luzhkov’s plan is nothing more than an updated version of the Soviet plan that Shatokhin and others thought they had killed for all time at the start of the Gorbachev era in 1986 (www.stoletie.ru/obschestvo/sergej_shatohin_ostavte_russkije_reki_rossii__2009-12-15.htm).
Shatokhin, who was the scientific advisor to the 1986 film “A Land in Danger” which helped kill river diversion then, says that the Moscow mayor is engaging in “dangerous populism” and that his proposals ignore both the real situation on the ground the costs of renewing such a project.
On the one hand, Shatokhin argues, “Kurgan, Orenburg, Chelyabinsk, Tyumen and Omsk oblasts are not experiencing serious problems with water,” and the Central Asian countries could address the problems they have more easily and cheaply and without causing problems for Russia and the global environment by developing deeper wells.
And on the other, in making his proposals, Shatokhin says, Luzhkov ignores the costs of building a 2500 kilometer canal 200 meters wide and 26 meters deep. Moreover, if the canal is not lined with concrete, the water will never get to Central Asia, but if it is, the cost will be far beyond the capacity of Moscow to pay, even with Western assistance.
Unfortunately, he says, there are people both abroad and in Russia interested in exactly this kind of a project, the former because they know it will weaken Russia still further and the latter because they view it as yet another opportunity to steal enormous sums from the state even though they recognize the project will never be completed.
In the course of his interview, Shatokhin recalls those who helped defeat Soviet plans to divert Siberian rivers: writers like Valentin Rasputin, Vladimir Soloukhin, and Sergey Zalygin, geologists like Aleksandr Yanshin, and mathematicians like Igor Shafarevich who developed a model on water systems that is still in use.
Luzhkov however, has referred to these people as “pseudo-ecologists” and “pseudo-patriots,” a characterization that Shatokhin suggests both highlights the Moscow mayor’s ignorance of what he is talking about and does nothing to boost his image, however hard he and his friends in the media may try to do that.
Everyone now recalls that in August 1986, the CPSU Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers decided to kill Siberian river diversion, Shatokhin adds, but few know just how tough a fight this was and how close the Soviet government came to pursuing the path that Luzhkov again wants to follow.
On July 22, 1986, he says, the presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers in fact adopted a decision calling for work on Siberian river diversion to continue. Nikolay Ryzhkov, the chairman of the Council of Ministers “could not do anything with his Presidium and so informed Gorbachev, who told him that “we in the Politburo will correct the situation.”
Two days later, on July 24, the Politburo did just that, and for good measure, the highest party liquidated the bloated water affairs ministry, whose budget at that time was second only to the Soviet defense ministry. Shatokhin says that this represented “a rare instance when Gorbachev took a correct decision” because of social pressure.
The scholar and activist says that he believes that “in the future, Russia will export water, above all from Lake Baikal, because it has, as it is fashionable now to say, the best brand.” But the decision to do that must be left to future generations. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of Russians to protect the purity of the water they have.
So far, the central Russian government has not tipped its hand as to whether it supports Luzhkov’s ideas, Shatokhin continues, and society has not become agitated, largely because most Russians believe that the decisions of 1986 remain valid and that no river diversion will take place.
But Luzhkov and other backers of the plan are continuing their work, and Shatokhin said that it is “a good thing” that many of those who took part “in the struggle with these plans” 25 years ago are still alive.” Some of them, along with Siberians who oppose the plan, he said, are already mobilizing to block Luzhkov and his revival of a plan that should have stayed dead.