Chinese and Russian officials are considering the possibility of diverting water from Lake Baikal in Siberia through Mongolia to China's Inner Mongolia Region. According to an unnamed official from China's Ministry of Water Resources, Russian officials contacted them in May about such a project (Chinadaily.com.cn, May 24).
China's Water Ministry quickly dismissed the Baikal report. Gu Hao, a ministry spokesperson, said there was "no plan to carry out research on a water diversion project from Lake Baikal." Furthermore, the ministry is not in contact with any foreign institute on any similar project, he said (Xinhua News Agency, May 26)
Interestingly, Russian media outlets have expressed no interest in the Chinese leak and subsequent denial. However, Chinese media statements are understood as a trial balloon to test Russian readiness to discuss Baikal water sales.
Five time zones east of Moscow, Lake Baikal is located in southeastern Siberia, spanning Buryatia and Irkutsk region. The lake holds some 20% of the world's fresh surface water, and it is the world's oldest lake, perhaps 25-30 million years old. The United Nations declared Lake Baikal a World Heritage Site in 1996.
Nonetheless, Lake Baikal has been considered a potential source for water exports. Since the early 1990s, local capitalists and experts in Irkutsk region have circulated plans to build a pipeline from Baikal to China. Their vision involves pumping water not just to China, but also possibly to Africa, the Middle East, and even the United States. In July 2004, an economic delegation from Irkutsk traveled to Shenyang, China, where local businessmen expressed interest in purchasing supplies of Baikal drinking water, according to Irina Dumova, deputy head of the Irkutsk regional administration.
Notably, Baikalskiye Vody (Baikal Waters) has been keen to start exports to China, even sending small amounts of bottled water as a first step. The company's shareholders include the East Siberian Railway and the East Siberian River Shipping Line. The company evidently is not discouraged by the fact that, for the past 45 years, a massive cellulose plant has been spilling chemicals into the southern portion of the lake.
Irkutsk businessmen are apparently inspired by China's growing demand for water. According to Chinese media reports, some two-thirds of China's cities are facing water shortages, while more than 100 localities have already been forced to impose restrictions on water use. Some cities have reportedly started to limit the development of water-intensive industries such as textiles and paper manufacturing.
Furthermore, Russia may soon see the emergence of a new class of freshwater tycoons. In February 2004, the Russia government drafted a new Water Code, allowing private ownership of rivers, lakes, and other water reservoirs.
The government did offer one caveat, specifically stating that Baikal was not to be privatized. Deputy Minister of Economic Trade and Development Mukhamed Tsikanov has made it clear that Baikal is not for sale (RIA-Novosti, February 19, 2004). However, the Russian government has a history of backing away from its promises.
In the meantime, the plans for massive water sales to China recalls the Soviet plan to build a 2,225 kilometer canal to divert Siberian rivers into Asian deserts. Through the 1970s and the 1980s, the USSR Water Resources Ministry prepared plans for water diversion, and it nearly succeeded in launching actual construction. However, Russian scholars condemned the project, arguing that diverting river waters could upset the global environmental balance. These protests became the roots of Russia's homegrown environmental movement. The Soviet government also found the project not feasible economically; hence the plan was abandoned in the mid-1980s.
In December 2002, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov moved to revive a bold plan to build a 16-meter-deep and 200-meter-wide canal from Khanty-Mansi to Central Asia through Kazakhstan so as to divert the Siberian Ob and Irtysh Rivers to the Central Asian Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers. The canal project would involve diverting about 6-7% of the Ob's waters. Project supporters argued that selling excess fresh water to Central Asia could prove a lucrative project for Russia. They estimated the project's cost at between $12 billion and $20 billion.
The Central Asian governments have backed the plan to divert Siberian waters because they are struggling to share water resources. Luzhkov argued that selling excess fresh water to Central Asia could prove a lucrative project for Russia. According to him, the canal would enlarge the amount of arable land in Central Asia by roughly 2 million hectares, and by 1.5 million hectares in southern Siberia. Luzhkov suggested forming an International Eurasian Consortium funded by loans backed by future proceeds from fresh water sales to Central Asia. But Russian media outlets have ridiculed Luzhkov's proposal, suggesting that the idea be checked not by economists but by mental health experts.
So far, there has been no nationwide discussion in Russia concerning possible Baikal water sales to China. Meanwhile, the environmental repercussions of the project are yet to be studied.