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Environmental Red Alert For The Volga, Europe's Longest River

The Volga River in Nizhny Novgorod
The Volga River in Nizhny Novgorod
Maria Portnyagina

MOSCOW - The Volga River, the longest in Europe and one of Russia’s natural jewels, has not so much flowed for decades. When it's not covered with ice, it fills with fish-killing microorganisms, and emits a putrid stench.

Environmental organizations describe the situation in the Volga region in alarming terms, noting that the region is home to more than 40% of Russians. Environmentalists and scientists also stress that they have the capacity to effect real change, rather than just make statements, but they are generally restricted from doing more by the government.

Judging from its statements, though, the government is perfectly aware of the dire situation.

The fate of the Volga concerns those outside Russia, too. In 2006, UNESCO and Coca-Cola joined forces to create the “Living Volga” program, which is aimed at raising public awareness about the Volga’s ecosystem and how to use its resources responsibly. The UNESCO - Coca-Cola tandem does not really welcome press attention to the project’s finances, though, and we were denied access to financial reports on the program.

But they are eager to talk about their main success: Since 2008 May 20 has officially been Volga Day, and UNESCO has added this holiday to its environmental calendar. The holiday’s program “honors this great river and its important role in providing people with water, food, energy, recreation and life,” through various different educational and recreational activities. Its most important activity is a shore cleanup organized in seven Russian cities along the Volga. Last year, there were 4,000 volunteers and 45 tons of garbage were collected.

Nuclear testing, blooming microorganisms

Statistics on the Volga River are saddening. The Volga basin accounts for 8% of Russian territory, 45% of Russian industry and around 40% of the country’s agriculture. It receives up to 20% of the country’s wastewater. The cities around the Volga see far more than their share of the country’s waste.

But for scientists, the most worrying fact is that Russia still does not have a system for monitoring water resources. Lack of funding is part of the problem, but so is Russia’s absurd bureaucracy. In order to examine fish, scientists are expected to send the Fisheries Agency the specimen they will examine half a year before the experiment begins. One scientist said that researchers will soon have to turn to poachers if they want to get anything done.

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Smoke over the river Volga at Nizhni Novgorod (Sergei Dorokhovsky)

It’s clear that many of the Volga’s problems are a result of Soviet experiments on nature, for instance the huge dams that were built. Building the dams put 20,000 square kilometers of highly productive floodplains underwater, and required the resettlement of 650,000 people.

“The Volga no longer exists as a river, it is just a system of water control: one ends and another one starts,” explains Gannadi Rosenberg, director of the Volga Basin Ecological Institute. “These changes have led to a huge increase in the man-made, non-biodegradable waste. In addition, there have been 26 nuclear tests carried out in the Volga basin during the Soviet years. But no one has studied their consequences yet.”

Moreover, the Volga is dirtied by waste from both industry and agriculture, which creates a cascade of problems for residents in the region: from breeding grounds for fish and other animals to concerns about drinking water. The river also has a major problem with microorganisms “blooming” on the surface due to changes in temperature or pollutants. In the Volga, these blue-green organisms both kill fish and make recreation in the river impossible.

All of these pollutants make their way to humans through the food chain, which has led to a joke among hydro-biologists. Russians, they say, are saved by the fact that unlike the Japanese, they don’t eat fish every day.

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