Russian History


Water Quality

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 (see Glossary) and the European Union (EU--see Glossary) 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 (see The United States, ch. 8).