Russian environmentalists and conservationists have sounded the alarm as Mongolia resumes its Blue Horse infrastructural programme.
The country’s water security programme envisages the construction of 33 dams on 13 rivers. According to the government, it aims to boost the national energy sector, agriculture and water security and supply more power to the nation’s industry and cities.
However, this could cause irreparable environmental damage to both Mongolia and Russia, specifically the ecosystems of the Irkutsk Region and Buryatia, as well as numerous Unesco World Heritage Sites, including Lake Baikal.
Given the deterioration of the geopolitical situation surrounding Russia, Mongolian officials decided to strike while the iron is hot and treat the launch of the project as a fait accompli.
However, Russian environmentalists and scholars believe that the programme is yet to pass the necessary environmental checks and be approved by all bordering states. The country seems intent on launching these projects unilaterally, without taking into account their impact and side effects.
One such project is the Uldza River dam, measuring 9-12 metres in height, aimed at creating a 27-million-cubic-metre water reservoir.
The Uldza is the primary inflow of the salty, endorheic Torey Lakes, which are part of the Landscapes of Dauria, a cross-border Russian-Mongolian Unesco World Natural Heritage site. The biodiversity of these lakes depends on natural cyclical fluctuations in the water level.
According to researchers, the Uldza dam would disrupt the natural water cycle and cause permanent changes in the ecosystems of the Torey Lakes, culling dozens of species of waterfowl and shorebirds in East Asia.
Construction at the Uldza was unannounced and detected only in 2020 thanks to satellite imagery. The Unesco World Heritage Committee expressed its utmost concern that construction of the dam had started without prior notification, and demanded that it be suspended until the project’s impact on natural ecosystems had been thoroughly examined.
As a result, Mongolia was compelled by the committee to halt the construction, with no progress being made since the spring of 2021.
However in April 2022, another HPP with a capacity of 90 MW was started near the border with the Altai Republic, Russia. The Erdeneburen dam is being built on the Khovd River, a crucial water source for the water basin of the Great Lakes’ Hollow in north-western and western Mongolia.
Khovd River feeds into Lake Khar-Us and the vast wetlands around it, which are host to a biosphere of international importance. Apart from the lake mentioned above, the wetland also includes the nearby lakes Khar and Dörgön.
The cross-border tributaries of the Khovd River originate from the Mongolian territories adjacent to the Russian Altai Mountains, rather than from the Chinese near-border area. To put it another way, disregard for environmental concerns surrounding the HPP will invariably affect the biosphere of the adjacent Russian regions.
Several Mongolian experts have, reportedly, argued against building the HPP without a thorough environmental impact assessment, rightfully assuming that the project, as it stands, would cause significant damage to the river, its tributaries and the entire biosphere of the region. This would, in turn, infringe upon the international status of these vast wetlands. Unfortunately, the concerns of Russian and Mongolian experts fall on deaf ears as far as the Mongolian government is concerned.
The Mongolian Blue Horse programme — infamous in Russia for being the most disruptive to the country’s natural wealth — seeks to create the Egiin Gol hydropower plant with an estimated output of 315 MW.
The facility is to be constructed on the eponymous river, the largest tributary of the Selenga River — the primary source of water for Lake Baikal. The plant could, therefore, majorly disturb the ecosystem of the world-famous lake.
According to the plan, the hydropower dam is to be 740 metres long, 82 metres high and 8 metres wide along the ridge, situated some 24 km from the mouth of the Egiin Gol River. The created reservoir will cover an area of 154.3 square kilometres and house around 5.7 billion cubic metres of water.
Back in the 2010s, the Egiin Gol hydropower plant was to become a part of a large MINIS project in Mongolia, which envisaged three dams to divert water and produce electricity for the country’s mining industry, said Alexander Kolotov. In Russia, during multiple public discussions on the project, locals and scientists alike spoke out strongly against it. This led to the World Bank and Chinese investors withdrawing their support for the project, while the Unesco World Heritage Committee demanded an impact assessment of HPPs on the biodiversity and ecosystem of Lake Baikal and the Selenga Basin.
Now, Mongolia has decided to bring the project back from limbo, sidelining the stakeholders. They have seemingly forgotten that Lake Baikal is protected by UNESCO and that potentially harmful projects can only continue following a preliminary environmental impact assessment and public discussions, including those held in Russia.
Lake Baikal is one of the oldest lakes on the planet and the largest extant freshwater lake. Even the slightest disturbance in the lake’s ecosystem might cause irreparable damage, not only for Russia and Mongolia but also for other neighbouring countries, such as China.