Katun Dam: Old problems, new solutions
Katun Dam: Old problems, new solutions
Planned large hydroelectric dams, especially on the Katun River, continue to threaten the overall environment and sustainable development of Republic of Altai and Altai Krai. Specifically, the planned dam on the Katun River still looms large, despite a coordinated effort by local NGOs, including our partners, to eliminate this project and propose energy alternatives. Many government officials, scientists, indigenous peoples, citizens directly and indirectly impacted by the project, and a broad coalition of NGOs are speaking out against the project. They demand alternatives, public input, and compliance with Russia’s environmental laws.
The Katun Dam, as currently proposed, would be built near the town of Elanda, about 30 km upriver from Chemal. At least 50 meters in height, the dam would generate upwards of 500-1000 million kilowatt hours annually. The required reservoir would flood 770 hectares of land, destroy 3 bridges across the Katun River, several roads, dozens of archaeological monuments, and remove a large portion of land from the “commons” used by local residents.
Financing for the project is shadowy. Some observers believe that project financing includes money-laundering and corruption. Dam negotiations are taking place in Moscow, Krasnoyarsk, and St. Petersburg, with a general failure to pursue due process with regard to public consultations and legal and regulatory requirements. To make matters worse, Republic of Altai government would only control 10% of the resulting dam’s shares, rendering it unable to effectively exert influence on pricing, water flow, energy production, or environmental protection measures.
While the current iteration of the Katun Dam project proposes a smaller-scale dam than in previous years, any dam on the Katun River would have far-reaching negative impacts. Designs in the late 1980s and early 1990s called for a 150 meter high dam, which would correspondingly produce greater energy and inflict much greater environmental impacts. Current project documents for the Katun Dam threaten the possibility that the dam would be raised to 150 meters or that a cascading series of dams along the Katun River would be needed.
The project supposedly proposes to provide cheap energy to the sparsely populated Republic of Altai and Altai Republic. However, because the dam itself and the energy it produces will be owned and controlled by private investors and developers, there is no guarantee that the energy will go where it is needed most at a price that is affordable to local governments and citizens permanently strapped for cash. In addition, energy from the dam must be connected to the centralized power grid, requiring technical and political agreements with the national power monopoly, RAO-UES. It is also possible, in theory, that such the dam would attract an energy-intensive industry, such as aluminum processors to the region, in search of cheap energy and labor.
Promoting Alternatives: More hopefully, both Altai Krai and Republic of Altai are increasingly attracted to alternative energy technology, coveted for its flexibility, minimal environmental impacts, and cost-effectiveness. Technologies such as mini-hydroelectric dams, solar arrays, and wind turbines are better adapted to regions such as Altai, where population centers are thinly spread over mountainous areas difficult and illogical to connect using a traditional power grid.
Fund for 21st Century Altai is leading efforts to develop a public discussion on appropriate energy alternatives to the Katun Dam. From an economic and social perspective, the Fund and many local residents agree that the best way to develop the region’s economy is to pursue tourism, eco-tourism, and the sustainable development of Greater Altai’s rich resources. Small-scale tourism, as well as a few larger enterprises, is being actively pursued by local tour operators, “bed and breakfast” type lodgings, campgrounds, “extreme” sports vendors (rafting, climbing, hunting, hiking, and horse-back riding tours). These enterprises are better suited to the region’s development than a large hydroelectric dam and the short-term jobs created by it.
The Fund is working in both Altai Krai and Republic of Altai to promote smaller-scale alternative and renewable energy technologies, including mini and micro-hydro, heat pumps, wind and solar energy, as well as increased energy efficiency of existing infrastructure. Work is underway to build a demonstration Alternative Energy Center to demonstrate these technologies, provide local consultation, and compile a database of technology providers and planning methods. Continuing to nurture this newfound interest and desire to implement alternative, lower-impact energy technologies is critical to the Katun Dam campaign.
Fighting the Katun Dam requires a multi-lateral and multi-faceted approach. The “Stopges” coalition, as it is known, has come together in recent months to include several nationally known Russian environmental lawyers, approximately 10 organizations and grassroots initiative groups, and a collective of advisors and others experienced in similar campaigns. Pacific Environment’s partners play leading roles in the campaign, especially managing lawsuits, public environmental impact assessments, promoting energy alternatives, and conducting outreach to local residents and influential government officials.
Siberian Environment Center, in cooperation with Chemal-based Zashchita Tengri, is leading the process conducting a public environmental impact assessment. This complex report will include analysis by over 30 experts in a wide range of fields reviewing the environmental, social, economic, and energy infrastructure impacts of the proposed dam. A successful, well-engineered report will likely provide evidence demonstrating that the dam is not economically, socially, or environmentally appropriate to the region or its needs. The public environmental impact assessment can be codified by federal law, offer legal leverage points, and influence the government’s environmental impact review.
Creating Protected Areas: Meanwhile, although federal protected areas continue to struggle for funding, political support, and clear regulation, regional and local governments have become more interested in creating regional protected areas to protect certain species, habitats, and/or natural monuments. This interest is due to increased coordinated efforts by local NGOs to lay the necessary bureaucratic and scientific groundwork required for such areas, as well as the recognition by local governments of the importance and value of Altai’s biodiverse and beautiful natural resources. Pacific Environment’s partners are leading planning efforts for proposed protected areas including Chemal Nature Park (Republic of Altai), Loktinskii Nature Refuge (Altai Krai), and increasing the buffer zone of Tigirekskii Zapovednik by 10% to include 6 nearby natural monuments (Altai Krai).
Regulatory and legal challenges include the rewriting of a number of important federal laws: Forest, Land, Mineral Resources, and Water Codes. The overhaul of these codes is ongoing and is creating a trickle-down effect of great uncertainty at the regional level. For example, regional officials are torn between creating protected areas at the federal versus regional levels, as this directly impacts their ability to control how the lands are used, managed, and protected. Meanwhile, the predatory development efforts of shadowy investors and developers require a constant battle to obtain information that is by law considered public and use of the courts to force investors to respect due process in the planning and public process.