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Altai Dam on Katun River

Alternative Energy Center in Chemal, run by the Fund for 21st Century Altai, PE partner. Photo by Meerim Kylychbekova

The Katun River is one of the last large, dam-free wild and scenic rivers in Russia.  Flowing for over 680 kilometers, the Katun is famous for its glacier-blue waters, alpine valleys, and world-class kayaking and rafting.  The Katun is also considered a sacred river to the local Altaian people (“Kadyn” in Altayan and Turkic languages translates as “woman”).  The northern half of the Katun is especially accessible, and many tourists from across Russia and around the world visit it every year in increasing numbers.  Unfortunately, its free-flowing and fast waters along with its deep alpine valleys have long made it an attractive target for people who advocate for hydroelectric dam construction.

The idea for a hydroelectric dam project on the Katun River dates back to the 1980s.  The purpose for this mega-dam was to promote development and provide peaking power to the west-Siberian electrical grid. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a time of heightened citizen activity in Russia thanks to glasnost and perestroika, as well as public anger following the Chernobyl disaster.  In one of its first large victories, the Soviet environmental movement successfully halted the Altai Dam project through public protests and solid scientific research. 

In 2005, the Altai Republic government, backed by Moscow-based financial interests, attempted to re-launch dam construction.  The current proposal is to construct a 57-meter high dam that would flood 770 hectares of land, destroy 3 bridges across the Katun River, and remove a large portion of land from the “commons” used by local residents.  The dam would virtually eliminate much of the recreational tourism for which the Republic of Altai is becoming famous.  Hundreds of small lodging facilities as well as hiking, camping, and water sport businesses rely on the free flow of the Katun River. 

On February 2, 2008 the company “Gorno-Altayskaya GES” along with several other Russian gas companies held a meeting with the Altai Republic government and an Australian company Castlepines Corporation to discuss investment opportunities to build the Altai Dam.  In response to this meeting, local organizations are collaborating to provide all necessary information to potential investors, including the results of an independent public environmental impact review which indicates that the project is neither environmentally nor economically viable.