Problems of protecting the environment in Siberia

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  • Geoforum, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 105-111. 1984. Wl6~7185/#4$3 oO+U.oO Printed in Great Britain. Pergamon Press Ltd.

    Problems of Protect in Si

    ng the Environment 3eria

    V. V. VOROBYEV,* Irkutsk, U.S.S.R

    Abstract: Environmental protection is both very necessary and a very distinctive problem in regions like Siberia, where most land remains undeveloped but where vast natural resources exist. The essential challenge is one of devising methods of environmental protection that allow rational development of natural resources without destruction of the natural complex. To achieve harmonious relations between production, the natural environment and quality of life requires detailed knowledge, appropriate legislation and effective implementation and monitoring.

    We very often hear nowadays that the problems of environmental protection are not urgent in Siberia because most of the land there is undeveloped. But this is seriously wrong. The problems of environ- mental protection in Siberia have their own pecu- liarities and they are as urgent as those for densely populated areas of the U.S.S.R. According to the decisions of the 26th Congress of the CPSU, the role of Siberia in the national economy of our coun- try throughout the 1980s will be gradually increas- ing. The increment in oil recovery and gas and aluminium production, as well as the major increase in the products of power-intensive chemicals, wood, pulp and paper industries in the country, are to be achieved by bringing the resources of this region into the national economy. Development of the productive forces of Siberia is, in the first place, associated with the growing exploitation of its natu- ral resources. It evokes complex interrelations and interactions between productive forces, the living conditions of the population and the environment. Under such conditions, it is essential to foresee not only the economic results of the measures taken, but also their negative consequences (environmen- tal pollution, degradation of elements of biosphere and depletion of natural resources).

    *Director, Institute of Geography of Siberia and the Far East, Irkutsk, U.S.S.R.

    The problem of the Siberian resource management is closely related to the problem of environmental protection.

    Characteristic features of Siberia are: huge natural resources, their large-scale economic construction on the environment of this region.

    It is a view common both to many scientific studies and to popular books that Siberia has limitless pos- sibilities and inexhausible resources. Indeed, Siberia does possess rich natural resources. Here are concentrated the greater part of the free terri- tory and land resources, three-quarters of all forests, two-thirds of coal reserves, two-thirds of river runoff and the major part of estimated oil, gas and other resources. In comparison with the sparse population, one may well get the impression of inexhaustible resources. Such an opinion is wide- spread and influences decisions for projects and plans.

    It would be more correct to estimate the resources of Siberia from a nationwide viewpoint, rather than from a local one. They are the national reserve and one must estimate the resources of the Soviet Union as a whole, bearing in mind that their greater part lies in Siberia. Our natural resources are large, but they should be estimated in relative units rather than in absolute ones, i.e. per capita. From this viewpoint, for example, the forest area in the U.S.S.R. is 3 ha per capita, in Finland and Brazil


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    5 ha, and in Canada 20 ha. The annual river runoff (i.e. fresh water resources) averages 17000 rn3 per capita in the U.S.S.R. and 63000 m3 in South Amer- ica (i.e. 3.6 times greater). Similar situations exist for water power resources and some mineral reserves. These data do not allow us to be compla- cent. Already we must take account of resource limitation and depletion without excepting Siberia. Thus one must be extremely sparing of the resources and their utilization should be rational and economical.

    Complex national-economic programmes are being accomplished in Siberia within a short time period, vast regions with different natural conditions being developed practically simultaneously. Fulfilment of these plans greatly influences natural conditions. For example, 100,000,000 m3 of wood are cut annually in Siberia; an area of 4000-5000 km2 is cleared every year. Over the period up to 1990 the cleared area of forest in Siberia will equal the terri- tory of Belgium and Holland together. As a result, the natural state of the continent and even of the world will suffer greatly, to say nothing of the local environment. As another example, hydropower construction in Siberia is carried out on large scales. Nowadays the volume of water stored in the reser- voirs on Eastern Siberian rivers alone totals 360 km3. By comparison, the Sea of Azov contains only 300 km, yet it does influence the surrounding territory. The effect of the Siberian storage reser- voirs is far greater on temperature conditions, quantity of precipitation and air humidity. Growing industrial regions greatly influence the natural environment, changing its characteristics; this changed environment in turn affects human health and life, and via these factors affects the industry.

    Solutions to environmental protection problems in Siberia require good knowledge of the peculiarities of natural conditions in this region and the specific conditions in which people live and work in the vast Siberian areas. Natural conditions in Siberia on the whole are more severe than those of Western Europe and even the European part of the U.S.S.R. Nature in these regions is very susceptible and disrupted ecological systems recover slowly and with great difficulty. The cause of these peculiarities lies in the extreme conditions - heat deficiency, duration of winter, low winter temperatures, low rate of biological growth, widespread permafrost - which are reflected in all conditions of life. Siberia is characterized by a low degree of stability of natural systems in the face of anthropogenic effects, by

    GeoforumNolume 15 Number l/1984

    reduced ability to recuperate and by a low potential of natural purification of technogenic products from ecological systems.

    Air protection in Siberia raises serious problems as well. The climate and meteorological processes in regions of intensive industrial construction are major factors determining the level of air pollution in industrial wastes, with its damaging effects upon man and his environment. The degree of air pollu- tion depends on the rate of turbulent exchange, which depends, in turn, on such meteorological characteristics of the atmospheric boundary layer as wind speed and direction and thermal stratification.

    Siberia, with its sharply continental climate, is char- acterized by a relatively high recurrence of calms. Frequent occurrence of air temperature inversions is extremely unfavourable for pollutant dispersion in the atmosphere. In normal conditions the air temperature falls from lower to upper atmosphere layers (OS-0.7C/lOO m); however, in winter inver- sions the air temperature rises with height (2C 100 m). In winter in many regions inversions occur on 8590% of days. Because cold air stagnates on the floors of valleys, harmful emissions and smoke from industrial enterprises do not disperse in the atmosphere, but concentrate in the immediate sur- face layer.

    A combination of inversions with calms or with weak wind and fog is the most favourable condition for air pollution. Windless winter periods are typical of Siberia. Calm periods occur on 20-30% and weak winds on 50-70% of winter days. The average number of foggy days is comparatively small, but it may be considerable in some years, the fogs occur- ring mainly with weak winds or calms. Thus fre- quent recurrence of weather conditions (surface and upper inversions, calms and weak winds, fogs) that interfere with the dispersion of wastes from indust- rial enterprises and from other pollution sources is characteristic of extensive areas of Siberia. Com- bined occurrence of these phenomena (in winter during frequent recurrence of anticyclonic situa- tions and in summer at night) may sometimes create extremely unfavourable, near-stagnant conditions for dispersal. Such conditions are most common in relief depressions (basins, valleys), which are known to increase the frequency and intensity of inversions and to reduce wind velocity. Yet these river valleys and intermontane basins were tradi- tionally where human settlements, industrial enter- prises and transport centres were located in Siberia

  • GeoforumNolume 15 Number l/1984

    in the past. Due to the increased significance of air protection problems, such an approach to industrial and population location should be reconsidered. It is evident that the lower parts of valleys should be recognized as unsuitable for locating residential complexes. The valley slopes are more favourable for these and should become the major sites for residence.

    A wide range of conservation measures are being undertaken in Siberia, together with the construc- tion or reconstruction of purification installations and work on improving their efficiency. The quality of air in many Siberian towns has recently been improved. Even so, there are still great problems ahead for the further protection of the atmosphere from pollution.

    Purification systems of industrial enterprises were and will be of great importance. Air pollution is known to be mainly dependent on industrial and transport activities, which are responsible for the major part of harmful emissions into the air. Parti- cularly heavy impact is made by ferrous and non- ferrous metallurgy, chemical and coal industries, thermal power stations, building-material plants and automobile transport. The improvement of technological processes for reducing harmful wastes, the perfection of purification works and the reduction of the toxicity of exhaust gases will all contribute to cleaner air in Siberian towns in the future. Siberia was always famous for its abundance of water resources, which in the past have been poorly utilized. In recent years a variety of indus- tries (chemical, pulp and paper, metallurgical, etc.) and new towns, consuming great amounts of water for technological and domestic purposes, have been developed here. As a result, the problems of water- resource protection and rational water use have become urgent.

    The problem of water-resource protection is com- plicated by some peculiar features. First of all, resources are unevenly distributed throughout Siberia. Despite the general abundance of water (Lake Baykal alone contains 23,000 km3 of water, amounting to 20% of the worlds fresh water resources), there are areas (e.g. the steppe regions of Western Siberia and Zabaykalye) with water deficiencies. Moreover, the Siberian rivers have an irregular runoff, with large annual fluctuations. Seventy-eight per cent of the total runoff comes in the summer period. Many big rivers have little flow in winter. For 7-8 months a year the rivers and


    lakes are covered with ice. The majority of small rivers and many middle-sized rivers are frozen through in winter. This raises difficulties in the water supply of many settlements. Water tempera- ture of rivers and lakes is low all the year round, which accounts for the comparatively poor develop- ment of organic life and the low capability for natu- ral purification.

    Anthropogenic influence on water reservoirs and resources constantly increases. Much effort has been made recently to reduce the hazardous con- sequences of this influence. Works on the improve- ment and introduction of new technologies, the application of recycling systems, the beneficial use of industrial wastes and the reductions of harmful effects on water reservoirs are being carried out. The intensification of the mining industry has a great influence on the water resources of Siberia (in the BAM zone in particular). Big mining centres based on large mineral deposits (copper, iron, gold, coal) are planned or under construction in the south of Yakutiya (Chulman), in the north of the Chita and Amur oblasts (Udokan and Gar, respectively) and in a number of other places. The building of industrial complexes will cause great changes in the natural environment; in particular, it will affect sur- face and ground waters. Possibilities of the deep burial of liquid industrial waste by means of filtra- tion are limited, due to the widespread permafrost. Thus the protection of the purity of the river system becomes very important. In some cases industrial enterprises make use of storage tanks for noxious effluent. It should be stressed, however, that in the widespread conditions of permafrost in the northern regions of Siberia the interaction of tanks with per- mafrost may cause degradation of the latter and, in the long run, pollution of ground water basins.

    Dredges are widely used in Siberia for mining placer deposits of gold, cassiterite and other metals. Such a mode of mining has an influence on river systems. The history of the gold industry indicates that in the past obsolete methods of gold mining by private prospectors often resulted in the pollution of rivers over a distance of 500-700 km (Timpton, Gilyuy). Construction of dredges on the rivers will undoubtedly affect the quality of surface waters and, probably, the most valuable kinds of Siberian fish (grayling, lenok, huchen). Construction of engineering works connected with living conditions will change the structure of the natural environment and introduce elements of cultural landscapes, which will obviously effect virgin nature and bring

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    about its gradual transformation. The directions and extent of the transformation of nature must be anticipated and forecast even at the initial stage of development.

    The 1980s face the task of installing systems at all operating enterprises of Siberia, with the aim of providing such effluent discharge conditions as would enable the water quality in rivers and other reservoirs subject to industrial discharges to be kept within the established sanitary standard. The par- ticular natural conditions of Siberia make it expe- dient to develop special sanitary standards for water in these regions and especially in the northern areas of the U.S.S.R.

    The more difficult conditions for natural cleansing of water necessitate the speediest measures for the changeover of industrial enterprises to a system of recycling and reuse of water, bearing in mind the future wide and rapid introduction of waste-free technologies. For these purposes studies are being carried out on the possibility of utilizing the wastes of pulp and paper plants as an effective fertilizer for many crops.

    In the forthcoming decade special attention will be paid to the problem of protecting the water of the unique Lake Baykal. In accordan...


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