Lake Baikal, Russia’s ‘Sacred Sea,’ has been a lifeline for inhabitants of southern Siberia for thousands of years, thanks to its pristine water and rich fauna.
The gigantic ancient lake, bigger than all of the Great Lakes of North America combined, encompasses about 23% of the planet’s freshwater reserves and is home to over 2,000 species.
It is also the site of a bitter battle between the state, residents, and environmentalists trying to strike a balance between a population dependent on tourism and mass development infringing on a fragile ecosystem.
‘It can’t hold more people’
On seeing Baikal for the first time, it’s hard to believe it’s a lake. The crescent-shaped Baikal – 400 miles long and a mile deep – completely freezes in the winter, creating a mirror-like surface of clear ice with no horizon in sight.
The stillness of nature and swathing silence, only disrupted by low-pitched groans of cracking ice, is overwhelming. But that serenity is getting harder to find these days, as swarms of tourists encroach ever further.
From dusk till dawn, local drivers race on a makeshift ice highway to get their groups to the next scenic spot at the lake’s biggest island, Olkhon, before others take over.
A man in a neon-colored snowboarding suit spreads his arms to pose for a picture near a rock formation: an Instagram hit dubbed Dragon’s Tail. A group of women a few feet back yell at him to get out of the way, furious he cut the line and blocked the view.
While visitors take selfies, guides gather to divide up areas of clear ice, the tourists’ most sought-after backdrop.
In the last decade, Baikal has become Russia’s biggest tourism sensation, especially among travelers from Asia, with visitor numbers growing from hundreds of thousands to almost 2 million in 2019, according to official data.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian government encouraged domestic travel to boost the economy, and this winter, the numbers flocking to Baikal doubled compared to previous seasons.
The infrastructure, however, is unprepared for this influx. Most areas lack the basic necessities – such as centralized sewage and treatment facilities – necessary to cope with mass tourism.
Despite that, illegal hotels have sprung up here – aided by crippling corruption and lack of oversight – bypassing environmental assessments, driving up real estate prices and forcing out locals. An investigation resulted in charges against a local official in 2020, and regional prosecutors periodically crack down on illegal construction, shutting down multi-room hotels registered as private houses. Few are being demolished, however.
Places like the village of Listvyanka – on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the lake and a mountain – welcome visitors with half-constructed hotels and crooked storefronts nesting on top of each other.
“What we have as a result is pollution. All this waste water falls into the cesspool and from there goes directly into Baikal,” said environmentalist Vitaly Ryabtsev, pointing to a massive yellowish stain on a frozen river in Listvyanka, right where it flows into the lake.
Ryabtsev, who has spent the past 40 years trying to preserve Baikal, says he doesn’t recognize the place anymore, largely because humans have driven out entire species of animals in a matter of a couple of decades.
“This is not the place for mass tourism,” Ryabtsev said. “I’d say that the most important measure would be to impose a ban on the further construction of hotels and tourist centers, at least until the existing tourist facilities are put in order.”
The results of unregulated human activity are not just an eyesore – they’ve had a very real impact on the lake’s dwellers.
Around a decade ago, scientists with the local branch of the Limnological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences noticed some odd changes along the shoreline. Spirogyra, a kind of algae that is not typically found in Baikal, began to grow next to some of the most popular tourist spots and spread fast.
The scientists quickly saw the algae suck out the life out of other living creatures, harming organisms responsible for cleansing Baikal’s water and covering its bed with green slime.
In just a few years, spirogyra covered most of the lake’s bed near places like Listvyanka, prompting the experts to conclude its appearance was a direct result of unfiltered sewage being dumped from new properties.
“This alga is like a parasite in a human body, and its massive growth is a clear sign of the disease in this great lake’s ecosystem,” Oleg Timoshkin, a hydrobiologist with the Limnological Institute, said in a lecture.
He and his team worry that huge parts of Baikal will be affected if the process accelerates, jeopardizing the lake’s purity.
A heritage site under threat
For Russians, Baikal has long been a part of their national identity and a source of pride. In 1996, the lake was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique flora and fauna and “outstanding value to humanity.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Baikal’s preservation “a government priority” after a 2017 visit to address pollution issues.
But like many other heritage sites, Baikal is facing an array of environmental threats, and some locals question if Russia is prioritizing tourism revenues over conservation.
Last New Year’s Eve, Russian environmentalists woke to an unwelcome gift as the authorities issued new legislation rolling back some key protections for the lake.
The international coalition Rivers without Boundaries, which took part in a year-long discussion with the state about its proposals, said it was shocked by the eventual legislation. Among other concerns, it allows development in previously untouched areas within Baikal’s municipal zones.
“We see that our government, instead of restricting anthropogenic activity around Baikal, moves in a completely different direction,” said the group’s ecologist, Alexander Kolotov. “All recent legislation aims to weaken its environmental protection status.”
The group, together with Greenpeace, sent a petition to UNESCO, arguing that Baikal’s protections have been significantly weakened due to “consistent lobbying efforts” from companies looking to expand their businesses around the lake.
A large part of Baikal falls under the jurisdiction of the Irkutsk region. In a 2020 government report, the regional tourism body outlined measures to reduce the negative impact of tourism on the environment. But the same report also said “the presence of special environmental restrictions” was a “systematic” problem hindering the tourism industry.
Russia’s largest bank, the state-owned Sberbank, is also spearheading an ambitious investment program aiming to build more hotels around Baikal and attract more than 3 million tourists a year by 2024.
The new regulations have sent ripples through local communities divided over the benefits and dangers of the tourism boom.
Gala Sibiryakova moved away from overcrowded Listvyanka over 15 years ago and settled in the remote village of Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, which has a current population of around 1,600.
She remembers Khuzhir to be a quiet place, where locals lived at one with nature and enjoyed unobscured views of majestic Baikal from their small houses. That soon changed.
“All this development, construction on all the corners we used to go and loved taking pictures of once – now all of these places are fenced off [by hotels],” Sibiryakova says while walking a pack of white Samoyed dogs. “And the saddest thing is that we used to drink the very tasty Baikal water, but now we cannot drink it; it is no longer clean.”
For Sibiryakova, the changes tourism brought into her community are also personal. Her husband Fedor is a native Buryat, belonging to one of the two largest indigenous groups in Siberia. Their eldest daughter is one of the very few people on Olkhon who can still speak and write in the native language.
The most sacred place on Olkhon is the Shaman Rock, where many come to make wishes and shamans perform rituals following spiritual practices linking the power of nature and spirits. For a long time no one was allowed close to the rock, but now tour guides have set up portable toilets around it to cater to tourists.
“Because of this tourist boom, the land became so expensive, and often locals could not compete with Moscow and foreign entrepreneurs, with Chinese entrepreneurs,” she said. “So we had this displacement of the indigenous people, the local culture disappeared along with local traditions and customs.”
At the same time, tourism has undeniably become a source of income for many on Olkhon, especially since the local fish factory was shut down and fishing outlawed.
Anna, a street vendor in Khuzhir who refused to give her last name, said she disagreed with the “green” activists and welcomed the easing of restrictions.
“We had nothing here just 20 years ago, and now we have electricity, internet, and a steady stream of income. If that’s all taken away, what are we going to do? Where will we work?”
In 2019, several hundred Khuzhir residents took to the streets to protest their village’s incorporation into the lake’s existing national reserve zone, worried they’d have to give up their land and businesses because of stricter regulations. Many of them have now welcomed the relaxation of restrictions, hoping it will ease the burden of bureaucratic hurdles.
Ryabtsev said the conflict between locals shocked by the impacts of mass tourism and those relying on it to survive has gotten so bad that he now avoids the topic in conversations with Olkhon locals.
Sibiryakova believes the anti-green sentiment stems from misinformation.
“People were afraid they would be evicted and left with nothing, so they came to protest without really understanding the laws,” she said. “For a long time you couldn’t build a private house but gigantic hotels for some reason had been allowed to build, so they thought it would help, but locals are not better off now.”
“I think there just should be some balance. Of course, you can’t totally abolish tourism, Baikal is beautiful, and people need to see it; it would be wrong to deprive them of it,” Sibiryakova added. “But now, for such a huge number of people, there is just not enough space.”
Baikal’s ticking bomb
Russia has tapped into many of its natural reserves for profit, and its history with Baikal is no exception.
In the 1960s, the Soviet government set up Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill, which specialized in pulp chemical bleaching, a process known to cause significant environmental damage if its byproducts are released in waterways.
Its construction is believed to have sparked the Soviet ecological movement, with activists working for decades to shut down the plant considered the lake’s main polluter.
The Russian government long conceded the mill was polluting the lake, but the fear of unrest in Baikalsk, a town born along with the factory and fully dependent on it, kept it alive for years.
The outrage over the harmful industry carried over into modern Russia, and the plant was eventually shut down in 2013, but ecological reasons hardly drove the decision. The mill amassed debts, and the business was deemed unviable.
The huge dilapidated buildings now stand silent and abandoned, but the danger to Baikal, however, remains. According to the Russian state news agency TASS, the factory’s reservoirs have over half a century accumulated at least 6.5 million tons of dangerous toxic waste – contained to this day in rusty tanks and man-made ponds.
Scientists worry that since its abandonment, the mill has become even more dangerous to Baikal, with polluted waste water stretching two kilometers into the lake, compared to about 200 meters seven years ago.
“As soon as the storage ponds overflow, streams run into Baikal,” Alexander Suturin, a head scientist with the Limnological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, told TASS. “Secondly, there is a large amount of accumulated waste water sitting under the site. When the plant was operating, the water was pumped out and discharged to treatment facilities, now there are no treatment facilities, but the contamination remains and is leaking into Baikal.”
Local authorities have made efforts to contain tanks or even remove waste water altogether, swapping several contractors, but have so far struggled to find a long-term solution. The latest subcontractor has been tasked with eliminating the waste by 2024, state media reported.
Environmentalists like Ryabtsev and Kolotov worry that Russia’s inconsistent environmental policy won’t get to grips with what the past few decades of human activity have already done to unique places like Baikal, which after more than 25 million years of existence could be on a path of irrevocable decline.
“We are extremely concerned about this invasion into untouched lands and the UNESCO heritage sites,” Kolotov said. “Russia signed up to protect these sites, but in reality … it turns out these sites sometimes need protection even from those who were supposed to protect them.”