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29 September 2016

The Bagaevsky lock on the Don River: another “bridge to nowhere”

Yet another example of the “the urge to use public money” triumphing over common sense

The Russian government incorporated the construction of the Bagaevsky hydroelectric complex on the Don River into the federal special-purpose program “Development of the Transport System in Russia” on August 16. The project is to be completed by 2020 and will cost 22 billion rubles according to forecasts. Planners envisage that the largest river in the south of Russia, referred to as “Father Don” in line with Russian tradition, will become a preeminent transport thoroughfare capable of meeting the demand of freight forwarders which has increased dramatically following the annexation of Crimea. However, opponents of the construction project including leading scientists and environmentalists, rightly point out that the construction of a new dam will in fact destroy the river that has already been “exhausted” in recent years. And ultimately, the sole beneficiaries will be the officials who sequester a considerable proportion of the federal budget allocated for “sharing”.

It was meant well

The first proposals to build a lock in the hamlet of Arpachin in the Bagaevsky district of the Rostov Oblast were made back in the 1950s. Subsequently, the issue was discussed in the 1980s but the project never came to fruition. The main goal behind the construction of dams on the lower Don was to increase the transit depth (the shallowest part in the navigable waterway) by up to 4 meters. In addition to the construction of hydroelectric complexes at the Tsimlyansky lock (1952), Nikolayevsky lock (1974) and Konstantinovsky lock (1982), large-scale dredging has been carried out.

At first, it seemed that the development of shipping on the Don, the construction of dams and reservoirs would not bring about negative consequences for the river’s ecosystem. On the contrary, after the launch of the Tsimlyansky reservoir when vast areas were flooded and fish were attracted to new, vast, spawning sites, an upsurge in the fish population was recorded. However, in the late 1970s, the situation began to alter at an alarming rate. Apart from direct pollution of the river by industrial and agricultural effluents, the main enemies of the Don’s creatures and the river itself were man-made hydro-technical facilities which were in fact incapable of coping with their primary aim: ensuring uninterrupted navigation of the Don.

Initially, diadromous fishes which migrated to the Don from the Sea of Azov to spawn suffered the most. And these are the most precious species: sturgeon and beluga. The performance ratio of fishways and fish ladders the Don dams were equipped with turned out to be extremely low: as few as 3% of species of fish successfully finished spawning. As a result, the yield of sturgeon stands at zero today compared to over 5 thousand tons per annum in 1940 and 1.5 thousand in the 1980s. In the early 21st century, only two of 44 species of precious fish from Azov-Don fish fauna remain for commercial fishing: anchovy and sprat.

The second problem is the decline in the water level of the Tsimlyansky reservoir. The dam of the Tsimlyansky reservoir has been cited as the world’s most meaningless by a PhD in technical sciences, the head of the “Green Don” NGO and member of the Supreme Environmental Council at the State Duma Vladimir Lagutov. The last time the reservoir burst its banks was 25 years ago (in 1991) and the reservoir’s water level has continued to decline ever since. Last November it reached a critical level of 31.22 meters. At the same time both the reservoir and the Don and the rivers that feed it, which have not been cleaned for decades, are silting up which diminishes the quality of water and washes away the food supply fish depend on. Moreover, a spillway on the Tsimla is used only when it is deemed necessary to serve the interests of shipping and not to protect local fauna. The Don has effectively been turned into a man-made channel for the transportation of goods and has ceased to be a site of nature.

However, these precious reservoir discharges do not resolve the situation. The Taganrog Bay of the Sea of Azov, the mouth of the Don, regularly dries up meaning dozens of ships are prevented from entering the river. The lowering of the water level has led to a situation where the peripheral edges of the river delta such as Mertvyi Donets and Svinoye Girlo are dying off. Along with the reduced volume of Don run-off to the sea, the salinity of the sea increases (due to the inflow of water from the Black Sea) causing the displacement of valuable fish species by coarse fishes.

As regards the purity of the Don’s water, today one can find almost all elements of the periodic table here: calcium and magnesium salts, iron, ammonia, boron, manganese and its compounds, nitrates, sulfates, phosphates, chlorides, sodium and aluminum. Given the surge of water from the Sea of Azov, the water in the mouth of the Don can hardly be described as fresh water. Vladimir Lagutov described the state of the river as “terminal” last year and forecasted that the Don will soon become a swamp if no preventative measures are undertaken.

The response of the government

Fortunately, some of those in power have raised concerns regarding the situation. In February of this year, the State Duma deputy Oleg Pakholkov sent a letter to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev which recommended that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment develop a “road map” aimed at improving the health of two major Russian rivers – the Volga and the Don. The deputy suggested that special vessels should be dispatched in order to clean the water of the rivers. It is noteworthy that Russians have heard nothing of the “roadmap” to save the rivers since. On the other hand, a couple of weeks after the address of the deputy, Medvedev instructed the government to incorporate the Bagaevsky lock project into the strategy for the development of inland water transport of the Russian Federation until 2030. Project design work is expected to start in September at a cost of 700 million rubles and it seems that concerns raised by environmentalists and social activists will have little or no influence either on the federal or local authorities or their relevant departments.

According to Sergey Gaydayev, one of the proponents of the project, the head of the Azov-Don basin administration, the construction of the Bagaevsky lock will fully resolve the issue of water levels and only minimal dredging will be required. The official states that the dam flooding zone will affect areas which are already regularly flooded (the Don burst its banks most recently back in the 1990s) whereas the completion of the new hydroelectric complex “will have a positive impact on residents, enterprises, animal life and lands” of the Rostov region. It will ensure that the region has the required volume of fresh water. During the 2013 round table when the Bagaevsky lock was discussed, another representative of the government, the deputy head of the Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport Viktor Vovk was more outspoken: “All of us here without exception are interested in preservation of our fish stocks and will do our utmost to avoid disturbing the ecosystem. After all, we all have families, and we do not want to leave behind a desert”.

Opponents to the new dam say that such statements come from the evil one. To begin with, they claim that the project is bereft of economic sense: the repayment period laid down in the program is 50 years, even if we ignore the fact that the 22 billion figure is merely an estimate and that the final figure may well be higher. By this time, the bulk-oil fleet, in whose interest the dam is being built, could remain dormant since it will simply have nothing to carry given the depletion of hydrocarbon reserves. Besides, macroeconomic break-downs do not support the selection of the Don as a route for oil transportation. “Transneft” is already building an oil pipeline from Volgograd to Novorossiysk. Other active players in this region – Iran and Azerbaijan – are planning to build a navigation canal and a railway line from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf ports.

Moreover, as the head of the regional department of the “EKA” movement Grigory Boldyrev recalls, the dam will be built using funds from the federal budget and profits from the project will go to river transport companies which will pay income tax to the treasury at a rate of 10-15% of their earnings. Consequently, the term of repayment will be somewhere between 400-500 years.

In addition, all of the repayment and feasibility calculations concerning the erection of the dam are based on the assumption that in 2030, 30 million tons of cargo will be transported on the Don whereas in the Soviet days the peak was less than 14 million tons a year and is as low as 8.7 million tons today. (Incidentally, the opponents of the new hydroelectric complex suggest that the problem of navigation on the lower Don can be solved by clearing the irrigation canals and the rivers adjoining the Don as well as employing vessels with a lower draft, as it is done the world over.) It is not quite clear where exactly the government has found its source of optimism given the Russia’s current economic stagnation and its dim economic prospects.

In addition to the economic shortcomings of the project, it is underlined that the dam’s construction will be followed by the flooding of vast territories, some having vineyards and other crops. What’s more, people will be simply turfed off of their land. The flooding will lead to a rise in ground water with increased salt concentration which will accelerate salinization and waterlogging. The water-flood over vast territories will make water warmer, which will trigger the reproduction of blue-green algae, meaning it will hardly be fit for fish habitation or for drinking. Igor Tron’, the chief technologist of “Rostovvodokanal” states that bacterial and viral contamination of water will inevitably follow.

And finally – the sturgeon. As of today, their spawn on the Don regularly occurs in a single place in the lower reaches of the river at the spot where the Sal tributary joins the Don, as reported by media sources which refer to the data published by the Azov Fisheries Research Institute. This spot is located between the operating Kochetovskaya dam and the site earmarked for the new dam. And, in the case that the construction of the latter goes ahead, the river will be subject to siltation and will be unsuitable for spawning due to the low velocity of the river’s flow. For this reason, one can say goodbye to any prospects of a revival of the fishing industry which only began to recover from the days of Soviet economy and the stranglehold of poachers in the 1990s.

In March of this year, the opponents of the construction of the lock submitted a petition to President Vladimir Putin which stated that the dam will “inevitably destroy all the precious Don fishes, will flood several settlements and, most importantly, one of the most beautiful stretches of the river and that protected islands and sandy beaches will become a swamp with a fairway overgrown with reeds”. “If there is additional money in the budget, we urge you to prevent its “laundering” in the Don and to earmark it to serve more pressing needs such as improving access roads to Crimean resorts (the occupied territory – ed.) and the Caucasus” – read the pleas of the document’s authors.

As subsequent events have shown, the authorities have once again proved that they are deaf to calls from society and the dam is meant to be. And now, as noted by Vladimir Lagutov, the lower Don will ultimately perish, suffocated between the Tsimlyansky and Bagaevsky dams.

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