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Hydroelectric Dams: A Looming Threat to Russia’s Mighty Rivers

The planned Evenkiiskaya dam project in the Arctic region of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Territory (with a projected production capacity of 8-12 GW and a 9000 km² reservoir, it would be among the largest dams in the world), is fraught with devastating social concerns and alarming environmental repercussions. These include displacement of thousands of indigenous Evenks and possible contamination of the Yenisei River watershed with nuclear waste from an underground nuclear storage chamber. Ironically, there is no local demand for the dam's electricity; project documentation indicates that the electricity is scheduled for export to China and Mongolia. Unfortunately, Evenkiiskaya is only one of many large scale dams planned for eastern Russia.

Large hydro will solve neither the region's energy needs nor its economic problems. The World Bank's December 2008 report Energy Efficiency in Russia: Untapped Reserves determined that 45% of the energy produced and distributed in Russia is lost to inefficient equipment and practices. According to the report, investment into measures to reduce energy consumption in residential, industrial, and transportation sectors and increase the efficiency of its energy delivery systems could save Russia an estimated $80 billion annually while dramatically reducing its global climate impact.

Standing in Nature's Way: Unnatural Lakes above the Dam

Perhaps the most apparent of any of a large dam's impacts are the immense reservoirs that form once its gates are shut. Naturally, the higher a dam is, the more extensive the consequent flooding and environmental damage. The Boguchanskaya Dam on the Angara River has been under halting construction since 1980 and is scheduled for completion before 2012. The plans initially called for a reservoir depth of 185 meters, but at the behest of developer RusHydro and co-investor RUSAL, this figure was increased to 208 meters, despite vocal protests from surrounding communities. According to an analysis from the Siberian Russian Academy of Sciences, this 23-meter difference will more than double the flooded area, including valuable agricultural and forest lands and several villages.

If built, the Evenkiiskaya Dam threatens approximately 7,000 indigenous Evenks with cultural extinction, as the reservoir would displace them to unfamiliar regions and their traditional reindeer herding grounds would be lost to the flood. A colony of Old Believers in Tatarka, north of Krasnoyarsk, stands to see its way of life destroyed by the planned Motyginskaya Dam. Wetland areas downstream from Motyginskaya, home to unique endangered bird populations, will also be severely diminished. The people displaced by the Boguchanskaya Dam are scheduled to receive apartments in neighboring villages as "compensation" for loss of their homes; inspectors, however, have already condemned these buildings as sub-standard - improper construction has already caused the buildings to crack and suffer water damage.

Worryingly, areas with high seismicity like the mountainous Sakha Republic stand to see the risk of earthquakes increased, should large dams like the planned Timpton cascade wrest back the powerful flows of its rivers. Though further research is needed, existing evidence indicates that heavy volumes of water place immense pressure on the reservoir floor. This can quickly widen natural cracks and fissures in the rock bed, potentially triggering earthquakes and tremors.

The Evenkiiskaya and Motyginskaya dams also threaten to wipe out millions of hectares of lush, pristine taiga, robbing this part of Siberia of its rich biodiversity and the earth of a valuable carbon sink. In addition, the decaying plant matter on the newly-formed reservoir floor zaps oxygen from the lower strata of water and produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that evaporates from the reservoir's surface. These oxygen-poor bottom waters become highly acidic, breaking down minerals at the reservoir floor, raising toxic mineral concentrations in the water, and creating stagnant "dead lakes."

Slowed to a Trickle: A Torrent of Problems Downstream from Dams
The placement of a large physical barrier on a river cuts off fish and mammal migration routes above and below the dam, often with irreversible consequences. The Volga River system in European Russia once served as vital migration and spawning routes for about 90% of the world's sturgeon as it traveled north from the Caspian Sea. Since the Volga-Kama cascade of dams blocked off these rivers in eleven places, several sturgeon species, including the prized beluga, have completely disappeared from the once-teeming rivers. The world's already dwindling stocks of salmon and other migratory species (like sturgeon!) would face a similar fate if dams blocked the Amur River, obstructing critical spawning routes from the Sea of Okhotsk.

The altered chemistry of reservoir water affects the ecology of a diminished river for many kilometers downstream, leading to greater climactic ramifications. When the Krasnoyarskaya Dam (one of the world's most powerful at 6000 MW) was built on the Yenisei River, its designers predicted that warm water releases from the reservoir would prevent the river from freezing for about 20 kilometers downstream. However, the unfrozen stretch of water extends 200-300 kilometers from the dam, which in the depths of the Siberian winter, causes thick freezing fog to cloud the city of Krasnoyarsk. In the remote northern areas near the Evenkiiskaya and Motyginskaya dam sites, such fog would hinder plane travel between isolated villages. In these sparsely populated regions of Russia's far north, where road networks are underdeveloped at best, riparian communities would be robbed of vital connections to the outside world for long winter months.

Additionally, the increased humidity and warm pockets of air caused by increased water temperature can lead to an overall increase in the surrounding microclimate's air temperature. More research must be done to fully understand how even a minor temperature increase downstream from the Evenkiiskaya and Nizhnekureiskaya Dams in the Yenisei river system would influence surrounding Arctic permafrost.

Development at all Cost?
Russia's own experience with the environmental and social impacts of dams throughout its western section should be enough to prove that large hydroelectric plants cause more long-lasting damage than they are worth. While it is certainly understandable and commendable that the country seeks to develop powerful non-carbon energy resources, it would be illogical and irresponsible to build even one of the planned projects; the costs to the Siberian and Far Eastern people, wildlife, and forests are too great. Instead, planners should apply their efforts to increasing Russia's energy efficiency and developing more responsible energy resources like micro-hydroelectric dams, wind, solar, and geothermal power.

Currently on the Drawing Board:
Amur Region - Nizhnebureiskaya Dam, Nizhnezeiskaya Dam
Sakha Republic - Yuzhno-Yakutskaya (Timpton) Cascade, Kankunskaya Dam
Irkutsk Region - Mokskaya Dam, Ivanovskaya Dam
Krasnoyarsk Region - Evenkiiskaya Dam, Nizhnekureiskaya Dam, Motyginskaya Dam, Boguchanskaya Dam (under construction)
Altai Region - Katunskaya Dam (potentially cancelled)