Lake Baikal, or «Sacred Sea», is located in southeastern Siberia, in the Republic of Buryatia and the Irkutsk region, Russia. Being 25–30 million years old, it is the oldest lake in the world. It measures 636 km long by 80 km wide, and has 2100 km of coastline. Its basin is made up of three underwater depressions, which together hold a volume of 23,600 cubic km of water, 20 % of the world’s fresh surface water. There are a number of islands in the lake, the largest of which is Olkhon, 72 kilometers long. Over three hundred rivers and streams flow into Baikal, of which the three main ones are: Selenga, Barguzin, and the Upper Angara. Only the Angara River flows out of the lake. The deepest point in Lake Baikal is 1637 m, the average depth being 630 m, and it has an exceptional clarity which allows 40–50 m of visibility. The entire surface of the lake freezes over in winter. The deepest waters in the lake are oxygenated by thermal springs. Sarma, Kultuk, Barguzin are the winds that come screaming down from the river valleys in a matter of seconds at hurricane force, whipping up waves four to six meters high.
1957, when the public first heard about plans for a cellulose plant at Baikalsk, people who had mutely obeyed the Soviet government for 40 years finally howled in protest. Local scientists, writers, fishermen, and ordinary citizens banded together to fight the plant, igniting an environmental movement that was a direct forebear of all Soviet activism to come. Their protests were mostly ignored. Yet at a time in the Soviet Union when the fires of free speech were being stamped out wherever they appeared, a small flicker burned fiercely in the Siberian wilderness.
After years of protest, the lake’s defenders were rewarded in April, 1987, when the Soviet government issued a comprehensive decree protecting Lake Baikal. Among other things, it abolished logging anywhere close to the lake shore and decreed that the cellulose plant be «reprofiled» for activities harmless to the environment by 1993. But it has not been decided exactly what those activities might be.
Meanwhile the dumping of industrial waste into Baikal continues, and bilious smoke still rises from the plant 24 hours a day.
For over 30 years this very issue has been the centerpiece of discussions and arguments between scientists, environmentalists, developers, industrialists and governmental officials. The environmentalists lost the battle to stop construction of this huge factory on the shores of Baikal in the 1960’s. Since then, there have been various efforts to use common sense and find an alternative to the existence of the Pulp and Paper Plant at the southernmost point of Baikal. Some of these efforts have been more obvious, but mostly they have consisted of «routine» work by researchers, scientists, and those who cared.
Dozens of international expeditions that worked on Baikal during recent years have come to the unanimous opinion: Baikal remains the cleanest reserve of fresh water, but the local alterations in its ecosystem near the Baikal pulp-and-paper plant and the region where the Selenga River flows into Baikal, impose their negative effects on its inhabitants.
The intensive exploitation of the Baikal Territory adversely affects the primordial, easily injured Siberian nature. We haven’t yet learnt to live in harmony with it, and the way to this seems to be long.