Lake Baikal at Risk
Jun. 24, 2015
In the far reaches of the vast region of Siberia is the world’s deepest freshwater lake. Baikal has depths of over 1,600 meters and is home to a complex ecosystem and unique wildlife. The lake is a source of pride for the Russian people, who call it “the Pearl of Siberia.” Ahead of the Sochi Winter Games last year, the Olympic Torch Relay was routed through the lake, with divers carrying the flame under water. And Baikal has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But its ecosystem is under threat. Water levels have plummeted, and conservationists are concerned about the impact on the environment.
The crystal-clear water is home to many unique forms of wildlife. The Baikal seal is the only freshwater seal in the world, and it is found nowhere else. There are 2,700 animal species in the area, and half are unique to Lake Baikal, having lived and evolved in the area for millions of years.
But environmental changes are starting to have a dramatic impact on wildlife. Due to the lack of rain, the amount of water flowing into the lake has dropped and riverbanks have dried up completely.
Subsequently, the lake’s water level has dropped. The water level has fluctuated over the last six years, and for the first time, from mid-February to early June, it dropped below the minimum required for the lake’s environment. “The volume of water in one river has dropped by 1.2 billion cubic meters over the last 20 years. That’s a massive change,” says Endon Garmaev of the Baikal Institute of Nature Management.
If the water level continues to fall, fish populations are likely to decrease. This would impact the Baikal seals, which are already in danger of extinction. A native fish called the omul is the mainstay of the local fishing industry. Over 2,000 tons used to be caught every year, but that’s fallen by a half, probably due to a scarcity of feed, such as small shrimp found in shallow waters.
A fishery on the lake usually spends the summer processing fish caught during the winter. But this year it canceled operations for the first time because there aren’t enough fish. “Our catches have shrunk, and so have our profits,” says Aleksandr Chernigovskiy of the Kabanskiy Fishery Firm. “We always hire people during the fishing season, but we won’t be able to hire as many this year.”
NHK World’s Kim Yana joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu via satellite from our Bureau in Vladivostok.
Beppu: Yana, the water level at the lake has been falling. What’s behind that?
Kim: Some scientists point to global warming, saying it decreases rainfall. But no one has pinned down a specific cause, and that is one of the things that has residents worried. Fish catches have dropped. More and more wells are drying up. Changes like these directly affect their livelihoods. Authorities are in a tough position. They know they have to do something. But since they do not know exactly what has caused the problems, it is hard for them to know how to address them.
Shibuya: The area is the only habitat of Baikal seals. Is there a threat to them, as well as the lake’s ecosystem as a whole?
Kim: Yes, there is. Last year, researchers estimated there are 85,000 Baikal seals in the area. The species is already on the threatened list. Environmentalists say if the water level continues to drop, it will have a big effect on the amount of plankton in the lake. That would mean a fall in fish populations. And the seals feed on fish. So there is the risk of chain reaction within the ecosystem.
Beppu: Have any measures already been taken?
Kim: It has been difficult to come up with effective steps to counter the lack of rain and falling water level. Around this time of the year, water from melted snow reaches the lake. That should restore some of the lost water. Authorities say they will step up monitoring to see just how much the water level rises. They are also considering whether to reduce the amount of lake water used for power generation. Forests around the lake have been hit by the lack of rain. Massive wildfires have wiped out over 100,000 hectares since March. Urgent research will be needed to identify the root of the problem and to ease the concerns of residents.