They say that you can’t kill a good idea--or apparently a bad one, either. Moscow mayor and Putin silovik Yuriy Luzhkov has revived one of the USSR’s last and most megalomaniacal projects, a scheme to divert a Siberian river southward to relieve Central Asia’s perennial water shortages.
According to one Russian media report, Luzhkov will deliver a report on the subject to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s new Russian Federation Government “in the very near future” (Moskovskii Komsomolets, June 4). Luzhkov first endorsed the scheme in December 2002. Now, in a Russia flush with energy revenue, the project is again receiving a new hearing.
Luzhkov’s proposal would begin with the construction of a water intake pumping station on the Ob River near Khanty-Mansiisk, from where a 660 foot wide, 53 foot-deep canal more than 1,500 miles long would deliver 25 cubic kilometers of water annually to Sirdaryo in Uzbekistan. Speaking on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg after participating in the round-table "Pure water - source of life: global challenges and threats" meeting, Luzhkov stated that the scheme would divert no more than 7% of the Ob's annual flow. While the cost of the project is estimated at $25 to $30 billion, according to current estimates, the Russian Federation budget could receive $5 billion annually from sales of water to Central Asia.
As an added bonus Luzhkov noted, "In addition, the implementation of this project will make it possible to normalize the situation with regard to field irrigation in Kurgan and Chelyabinsk Oblasts, where the wheat harvest is now entirely dependent on the whims of nature. One year everything is normal there, but then for three years it is really awful." Luzhkov said that given what Russia could charge for the water, “the recovery of capital investments will be in three to four years” (www.polit.ru, June 9). State Duma chairman Boris Gryzlov, a supporter of the proposal, estimated construction time at five to seven years.
This is the second time that the topic of Siberian river diversion has been raised at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, as last year Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev expounded on the same theme, calling for reviving the project and making it a major element of CIS integration (www.regions.ru, Novosti Federatsii, June 7). Nazarbayev’s remarks built on those he had delivered on September 4, 2006, at a press conference in Astana during a state visit by Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Nazarbayev told reporters, "Even at the time when diverting Siberian rivers was discussed, no one said that they would fill the shrinking Aral Sea; the talk referred to drinking water for the entire region” (“Vodnyi mif,” www.babr.ru, November 9, 2007). Downplaying the possible environmental impact, Nazarbayev said that "even the marshes along the Ob river would not shrink" as a result of diverting Siberian rivers to Central Asia (Interfax-Kazakhstan, September 4, 2006). Uzbek President Islom Karimov also supports the scheme.
Luzhkov’s pet project is not without its critics. Russian Academy of Sciences corresponding member Viktor Danilov-Danilian estimates that the project could ultimately cost $200 billion (RIA-Novosti, June 7).
Luzhkov’s project was first proposed four decades ago. In 1968 the USSR’s Central Committee ordered the development of plans for regulating and redistribution of river drainage. One project envisaged building a 1,600 mile-long channel to connect Siberia’s Ob with Central Asia’s Amu-Darya River at an estimated cost of more than $16 billion, but this was shelved by 1986 because of growing ecological and economic concerns,. The proposal saw the rise of a nascent Soviet “green” movement opposed to the project.
Whatever else might be said about the project, it is a perfect marriage of Kremlin greed and Central Asian need. By any measure the hydrological problems of Central Asia are worsening, as they struggle with the legacy of an inefficient Soviet-era agricultural infrastructure focused on cotton production, with the Aral Sea’s devastation only being the most visible result. According to a World Bank study, nearly 60 percent of the water intended for farms does not reach the fields. Despite its oil wealth, Kazakhstan has been forced to negotiate with neighboring poverty-stricken Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which control the region's water sources.
The project seems unlikely to attract international funding. Six years ago David Pears, head of the World Bank office in Tashkent, said that the project would be a “money-losing” and “unrealistic” enterprise (Interfax, August 17, 2002). It can be expected that Central Asian capitals will be asked by the Kremlin to contribute to the project and that once it has been completed Moscow will set water rates according to market forces.
Finally, the Siberian waters may prove to be a poisoned chalice for Central Asians. The waters of the Ob River, already heavily polluted by nearby oil fields, conceal a darker secret. The Siberian Chemical Combine at Tomsk-7, or Seversk, is one of the world’s largest nuclear weapons production facilities. The site contains five graphite-uranium plutonium production reactors, a uranium enrichment plant, a reprocessing plant and other plants engaged in the military nuclear materials cycle. The plant adjoins the River Tom, a tributary of the Ob. A report of the Russian Federation Security Council states that the total inventory of radioactive waste within the industrial zone of the site is approximately 44,000 petabecquerel (AMAP Assessment Report–Arctic Pollution Issues, www.amap.no). The April 1986 Chernobyl disaster released 80 petabecquerels of cesium, strontium, plutonium and other radioactive materials. Radioactive waste from Tomsk-7 has been found in the Arctic Ocean. It seems unlikely that the Ob would not send its nuclear trash southward as well. In 2000 Russian and U.S. scientists concluded that water discharged from Seversk exceeds the amount of radiation produced from the dumping of technological water from 10,000 industrial reactors and that the level of radioactive contamination in the Tom and Romashka Rivers is the highest in the world (Interfax, November 3, 2000).
An old Aral proverb states, "In every drop of water there is a grain of gold." Central Asian politicians tempted by Moscow’s water largesse should bear in mind the old Uzbek proverb: "At the beginning you drink water; at the end you drink poison."