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  Main arrow Baikal Discovery Digest arrow Lake Baikal Ecology arrow Lake Losing it's Luster  

Lake losing its luster

Radio Nederland
March 18, 2003By Laura Durnford of  the Science Unit


As delegates from around the world gather in Japan for the Third World Water Forum this week, another meeting in Paris could influence the fate of the planet's largest single store of surface freshwater – Lake Baikal in Siberia. Its natural filtration system, which has evolved over millions of years and helps to keep the waters amongst the purest in the world, is already affected by pollution and may now face new threats.
The ‘Pearl of Siberia' is just one nickname by which Lake Baikal is known, thanks to the richness of its beauty, with mountains, forests and wild rivers all around. Located in South-eastern Siberia close to the Mongolian border, this natural treasure is also an ancient cultural crossroads for many Asian tribes and nations, many of who see it as a holy place and call it ‘The Sacred Sea' or ‘The Heart of Asia'. But Baikal is also a limnological superstar; this the oldest lake on the planet (25-30 million years) is also the deepest at around 1600m, and it holds a cool 20% of the world's surface freshwater supply. It's also home to around 1200 species of animals and 1000 species of plants. With four in every five species being unique to the area thelLake earns yet another moniker: ‘The Galapagos of Russia'.
"Scientists call it a place where evolution is generated, like an engine of evolution," says Dr. Maxim Timofeev, a biologist working as a consultant on the lake for the Russian Geographical Society. "Now it has evolved a very complex system of crustaceans, worms and molluscs that can help to keep pure and very clear water for years." These creatures work in concert to filter dead organic matter out of the lake, resulting in water so pure that in many places it can be safely consumed without further processing.
 Unsurprisingly then, Lake Baikal was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996, in recognition of its special attributes and status.
Human impact
But, although Baikal still counts as one of the purest freshwater bodies in the world, some parts of the pearl are showing signs of losing their lustre, according to Jennifer Sutton - a co-chairman of the locally based NGO, Baikal Environmental Wave: "These species are at risk from any form of pollution. This can be observed in the Southern basin, which has been under impact from human activity around the lake and changes can be seen in the system already."
For a number of decades, the lake has been contaminated by the outflow from two local pulp and paper plants as well as other industrial and municipal waste. And Sutton says that relatively high levels of dioxins and other chemicals have been found in the blubber of the nerpa – the world's only freshwater seal, which is unique to Baikal. But other proposed developments now pose an additional potential threat; the possible construction of pipelines through the region, transporting gas and oil to China.
Quakes and leaks
Although the Russian State Party has recently ruled out the possibility of a pipeline cutting through the World Heritage Site itself, alternative routes could cross around 50 major rivers and many more smaller tributaries to the lake. With a history of leakages from existing pipelines, the protection of Baikal's water catchment is a major concern to the environmentalists. And their fears are compounded by the knowledge that the lake occupies one of the deepest rifts in the Earth's crust – a rift that is still widening, with up to 2000 seismic events recorded in the regioneach year. "The possibility of earthquakes affecting the pipelines is veryhigh," believes Sutton.
Conventional influence
With such hazards on the horizon, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO has been considering moving Baikal onto its ‘World Heritage Site in Danger' list, but has postponed its decision until July 2003 following opposition by the Russian State Party. In the meantime, the Committee is first meeting this week to discuss various revisions to the operational guidelines of the convention that underpins the formation of these lists. According to a representative of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), some parties are seeking a change so that sites could not be put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger without the consent of the State Party. "IUCN considers that this change, or interpretation , would affect the credibility of the convention," says Georgina Peard. If such a change is actually made, it could conceivably influence the future of the waters, species and environs of Lake Baikal.

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