Most major industrial centers in Russia have poor water quality. The Caspian and Black seas, the Sea of Azov, the Volga River, and Lake Baikal all suffer from water pollution. Sewage and industrial waste are dumped directly into rivers. The city of Vladivostok pumps raw sewage into its bay. Water treatment facilities have broken down. Some families get their cooking fuel by skimming leaked kerosene from spring water.

Dams that provide electricity for the Trans-Siberian railroads or factories have submerged large tracts of forest. The Sea of Azov suffers from salinziation, overfishing, and industrial pollution. Pollution in the Caspian Sea has badly damaged the fishing there. By some estimates 15 percent of Russia’s water has been affected by the dumping of toxic waste.

Soviet leaders took little action to protect the nation's inland bodies of water or surrounding oceans and seas from pollution, and Soviet planners gave low priority to risk-free treatment and transport of water. As a result, 75 percent of Russia's surface water is now polluted, 50 percent of all water is not potable according to quality standards established in 1992, and an estimated 30 percent of groundwater available for use is highly polluted. The most serious water pollution conditions relative to demand and availability of clean water are in the industrial regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol' territories north of the Caucasus, Rostov and Novosibirsk oblasts, the Republic of Chechnya, and the city of Moscow. In Krasnodar and Stavropol', inherent water shortages exacerbate the situation. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The quality of drinking water is a major concern. Poor water management standards have raised health concerns in many cities, and water safety also is doubtful in the countryside, where 59 percent of the population draws water from common wells affected by groundwater pollution. Unsanitary runoff from populated places and agricultural sites contributes heavily to pollution of sources that ultimately provide water for domestic use; the quality of drinking water declines noticeably during spring floods, when such runoff is heaviest. Rudimentary portable filters are not widely available. An estimated 8 percent of wastewater is fully treated prior to dumping in waterways; most water treatment facilities are obsolete, inefficient, and generally overwhelmed by the volume of material that now passes through them, but funding is not available to replace them.*

In 1986 a group of Soviet scientist present the government with a plan that change the course of several of the country's rivers so that they would flow south into the rice and cotton growing regions of central Asia instead of emptying into the Arctic Ocean.

Polluted Rivers in Russia

All the major rivers of European Russia—including the Volga, Don, Kama, Kuban and Oka—have 10 to 100 times the allowable viral and bacteria levels. The runoff of agricultural chemicals causes algae blooms which deplete the water of oxygen, killing fish and taking decades to clean up. One of the major problem is the dams. Water entering the Volga, for example, used to flow from one end to the other in 50 days and chemicals were flushed out. Now it takes 180 days and chemicals sit in the water and heavy metals settle on the bottom.

In recent years, officials have identified many of Russia's rivers as carriers of waterborne diseases, epidemics of which were especially frequent in 1995. In July 1995, Moscow city health officials reported an outbreak of cholera-causing bacteria in the Moscow River. Officials have warned of increasing outbreaks of sewage-related diseases--including cholera, salmonella, typhoid fever, dysentery, and viral hepatitis--in many other Russian rivers. Citizens have been instructed to boil all water before use. In some areas, clean water is so scarce that water is imported from other regions. The highest consumption of imported water is in the republics of Sakha (Yakutia) and Kalmykia, Kamchatka and Magadan oblasts in the Far East, and Stavropol' Territory. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Among the chemicals and contaminants dumped frequently and indiscriminately have been compounds containing heavy metals, phenols, pesticides, and pathogenic bacteria. Chemical pollution was dramatized when fires ignited spontaneously on the Iset' River in Sverdlovsk (present-day Yekaterinburg) in 1965 and on the Volga River in 1970. Russian agriculture, like industry subject to centralized control and quota fulfillment in the Soviet era, continues to cause severe water pollution by overuse and improper handling and storage of toxic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. During the Soviet era, dioxin, a carcinogen, was used routinely as an agricultural insecticide, and it heavily tainted rural wells. In 1990 Soviet authorities declared that dioxin, which enters the body through drinking water, was the most serious health threat from pollution.*

In 1992 the Russian Federation's Committee on Fishing reported 994 cases in which bodies of water were "completely contaminated" by agricultural runoff. Runoff from fields results in fish kills and groundwater contamination. Among the largest river systems in European Russia, the Volga and Dnepr rivers suffer from acute eutrophication--depletion of dissolved oxygen by overnutrition of aquatic plant life--which distorts natural life cycles. Large-scale fish kills have occurred in the Kama, Kuban', North Dvina, Oka, and Ural rivers.*

In 1986 a group of Soviet scientist presented the government with a plan that change the course of several of the country's rivers so that they would flow south into the rice and cotton growing regions of central Asia instead of emptying into the Arctic Ocean.

Polluted Seas Off Russia

Pollution in the Gulf of Finland, the easternmost extension of the Baltic Sea, includes untreated sewage from St. Petersburg, where heavy metals and other chemical substances are not properly removed prior to dumping. In late 1995, St. Petersburg city officials signed an agreement with a French water purification company to process the city's drinking water; the Finns hope that such a move also will improve the overall quality of the city's effluent water.*

The Baltic Sea is a shallow, brackish, lakelike sea, of strategic importance to the nine nations that surround it. Covering an area about the size of Montana, the Baltic Sea has a delicate salinity and oxygen supply. It lack of outlets also means that pollution that flows into the Baltic often gets trapped there in the sometimes stagnant body of water. The amount of pollution has decreased dramatically since all the nations around it signed the Helsinki Convention of 1974.

Polluted Lakes in Russia

Water quality in Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest freshwater lake, came to the attention of government authorities in the mid-1990s. Factories on the lake, which is just east of St. Petersburg, have discharged tons of heavy metals and other toxic substances into local rivers. The shores of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega to its east have been storage sites for fertilizers, livestock waste, and chemicals as well as for radioactive military waste. When local rivers emanating from the lakes reach the Gulf of Finland, their chemical burden changes the oxygen balance in the gulf. Similar situations affect the Arctic Ocean, into which Siberian rivers flow after passing through numerous industrial and power-generating centers, and the Baltic Sea, into which large amounts of military waste and chemical weapons were discarded from Poland and the Baltic republics during the Soviet era.*

Lake Baikal, a water resource of world importance located in south-central Siberia, long was the focal point of Soviet environmental efforts to end the pollution that the pulp and paper plants caused in the lake's watershed. A series of comprehensive Soviet and post-Soviet plans yielded limited success in protecting the lake's water and shoreline, which gradually have succumbed to chemical stresses. In 1995 the World Bank and the European Union (EU) granted funds for cleaning up Lake Baikal, and in 1996 the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission announced United States plans to aid Russia in overhauling paper plants in the Baikal region.*

Caspian Sea Pollution

The Caspian Sea is also beset with chemical pollution and the loss of indigenous species, and it now faces the danger that 1 million hectares of its coastline, including Russia's Volga River delta, will be flooded. According to a 1996 report, 300,000 hectares in Dagestan already had been inundated. By 1993 the average water level of the sea had risen by more than two meters. Scientists blame the rise on the 1977 Soviet damming of the Garabogaz Gulf on the Caspian coast of Turkmenistan. Previously, the waters of the gulf intermixed with those of the Caspian, acting as the main thermal regulator and volume stabilizer of the larger body. In 1996 the Russian government allocated US$38 million for Caspian Sea conservation, to be matched by US$34 million from local budgets.*

Water quality problems are most severe in European Russia, especially in the Volga Basin, where about 60 million people live. Of all water withdrawn from natural sources in Russia, 33 percent comes from the Volga. About half of that water returns to the Volga as polluted discharge, accounting for 37 percent of the total volume of such material generated in Russia. The Volga's water does not meet the norms for drinking water and is unsuitable for fish farming or irrigation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous government committees were formed to clean up the Volga. Few of the resulting restorative programs have been implemented, however, and the Volga remains under ecological stress.*

Volga River Pollution and Dams

The Volga is one of the most mucked with rivers on the planet. Volga pollution comes from industrial waste, sewage, pesticides, fertilizers. Many factories and cities empty their waste in the Volga. Pollution tends to settle in the lakes or slow-moving areas rather than being flushed out if the river was more free flowing. In some of the reservoirs heavily polluted muck is several meters thick.

Dams and reservoirs—many constructed during the Stalinist era—are located at intervals of every 200 miles along the rivers length. Before each one the river expands into a hue artificial lake that has submerged old villages and towns. Kuibyshev reservoir near Kazan is the largest artificial lake, covering an area of 2,500 square miles. Boats skirt the dams through a network of locks. The next largest lakes together cover about 3,000 square miles. In some places the steeples of churches from submerged towns and villages peak above the waters. Cities and towns and factories along the shores are often so ugly you wish they too had been submerged.

The dams and the reservoirs make the river easy to navigate and generate some electricity (although not as much as anticipated because the water moves slowly through the turbines) but they have also created environmental problems. The dams disrupt spawning routes. The slowness of current creates breeding grounds for fish parasites.

Dams, reservoirs and irrigation projects linked with the Volga for a while reduced the level of the Caspian Sea. There was some discussion of using nuclear weapons to blast a channel from the Pechira River to the Volga to increase the Volga's flow. It is said that only 3 percent of the water in the Volga basis is safe to drink. More than 42 tons of toxic wastes collect in it every year. The WWF has pressured the World Bank not offer any loans for Volga projects, saying it is a “potential ecological and social disaster.”

Pollution in the Caspian Sea

Pollution in the Caspian Sea is a serious problem. The Caspian Sea is being fouled by run-off from unchecked construction, untreated sewage, fertilizers and pesticides, including carcinogens and DDT. Salt lakes that could have been profitable are now so contaminated with chemicals they are health hazards instead. Industrial areas that make plastics and fertilizers have produced foul smells and blemished the and landscape and resulted in high rates of miscarriages and stillbirths and other health problems. Because the Caspian Sea has no outlets it has a limited ability to flush out pollutants. An oil spill in the Caspian Sea would be a great ecological disaster. The oil would not be flushed out as it would in a river or sea. A major oil spill could be devastating and have much more adverse affects than a spill in the ocean. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

Russia is the largest polluter of the Caspian Sea. Every year more than 13 billion cubic meter of wastewater reaches the Caspian Sea, with 10 billion cubic meters coming down the Volga from Russia. Azerbaijan’s share is about 850 cubic meters., which comes down the Kura and Araks Rivers. The Volga dumps industrial wastes, pesticide, detergents, heavy metals, oil and sewage into the Caspian Sea. Large amounts of phenols and oil products have been left behind by the sea's petroleum industry. Southerly currents along the central coast concentrate pollutants around Baku and the Apşeron Peninsula.

Oil is another problem. In the early 1990s a film of oil a quarter inch thick formed on top of the water on the coastline of Baku. Some have blamed the presence of the oil on the rising level of the Caspian Sea. It is though that the film of oil prevents the water from evaporating.

Some parts of the Caspian Sea are being choked by the floating azolla plants imported from the Far East. The spongy plant, which floats on the surface like lily pads, blocks the sun and has created dead zones without any fish. The problem is particularly acute in the Anzali wetlands, 150 miles northwest of Tehran. Azollas were brought to Iran in the early 1980s from the Philippines as a source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer for rice growers.

In recent years the Caspian Sea has become cleaner but that is only because some of the factories that once polluted it have closed down. That trend is expected to be reversed when oil production reaches its capacity. The United Nations-sponsored Caspian Environmental Project (CEP) has the mandate of cleaning existing pollution, prevent pollution in the future and working with oil companies and the government of the Caspian Sea nations to keep the Caspian Sea clean. It is assumed the group will have a better record than the Soviet Union, which established zero tolerance regulations that were ignored by bribe-taking officials.

Pollution in the Black Sea

The Black Sea suffers from pollution, shortages of oxygen and jellyfish plagues. About 90 percent of the Black Sea is depleted of oxygen. What little oxygen, near the surface, is consumed as tons of organic matter, dumped into the sea by the rivers that empty inti it decomposes. The Black Sea also suffers from high pollution levels and natural build ups of lethal hydrogen sulphide. The bottom layers of the Black Sea contain high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. If an event like the one that occurred Lake Nyos in the Cameroon in 1986, occurred in the Black, there is a possibility that hundreds of thousands of people could die.

Marine biologists report that only five species of fish remain in the Black Sea, which once was a highly diverse marine ecosystem with twenty-six species. Between 1985 and 1994, the total fish catch in the Black Sea dropped from 675,000 to 45,000 kilograms. According to environmentalists, the entire sea is in danger of "dying" because only about 10 percent of its near-surface volume contains enough oxygen to support life. Deoxygenation is caused primarily by large-scale infusions of hydrogen sulfide, which comes mainly from the Danube, Don, South Bug, and Dnepr rivers that flow into the sea from the north and the west. Large amounts of mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and oil have been identified as well. In 1992 the littoral states of Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine signed an agreement to take specific measures against pollution of the Black Sea and the tributary rivers that flow through their territory. Conflicting goals and positions among the states involved, however, have hindered environmental cooperation.*

Fish populations in the Black Sea are being threatened by a non-native jellyfish species ( Mnemiopsis leidyi) that arrived from the Atlantic around 1980, probably in the ballast water of a ship. Sometimes 300 or more jellyfish occupy a square foot of water and it is estimated that more than a billion tons of the creatures cobble up plankton that provide the foundation of the Black Sea's food chain. Oceanographers have suggested introducing butterfish, which feed on the jellyfish in the Atlantic.

Pollution in Lake Baikal

The Baykalsk Paper and Pulp Mills was a major source of pollution of Lake Baikal until it was closed in 2013, putting 3,500 people out of work. Located on the southern shore of Lake Baikal, it was constructed in the 1950s to make "super" cellulose for airplane tires, an idea that was made obsolete when synthetics were developed. Before it was shut down the mill churned out thick clouds of smoke and dumped industrial waste into the lake 24 hours a day.

In 1989 the plant discharged 26,000 tons of minerals, 200 tons of suspended materials and 2,500 tons of organic byproducts into the lakes, which believe it or not is remarkably little for pulp mill it size. Another large paper mill—the Selenginsk Pulp & Cardboard Mill—lies on the Selenga River, which feeds into Lake Baikal. It uses a chlorine treatment to turn wood into cellulose, which is used to make paper, cardboard and other products.

Pollution from the mills has been blamed for reducing fish populations and reducing the clarity of the water and producing dioxin that build up in he bodies of seals and other animals. The Selenga River also carries in pollutants from Ulan Ude and three Mongolian industrial cities. The lake have been overfished. Gold mining and logging and building foreigner hunting trips have been banned.

Most everyone hated the Baykalsk paper mill, except those with jobs that depended on it. A clerk in Moscow called it "our national disgrace" and a conductor on the Trans-Siberian offered to personally level it with a sledgehammer. The Soviet environmental movement began with a protest of the paper mill, which responded by installing a "closed loop" pollution-reduction systems and stopped using bleach.

Lake Baikal area towns such as Baykalsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude are heavily industrialized and are blamed with producing acid rain and other pollutants that foul the lake. Laws have been placed on the books to reduce coal burning but these laws are only lightly enforced. There are plans to install more pollution-reducing technology but there isn't enough money for it.

There is a large dam on the Angara River neat Irkutsk. This dam is blamed of reducing the omul population by raising the water to levels that damage the fish's breeding grounds. Where the lake empties into the lake there is a huge rock, called Shaman Rock. Local say it was hurled there by Old Man Baikal after one of his 337 daughter fell in love the Yenisey River. Because of the high water only a small portion of the rock is visible.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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