New Internationalist

Red Desert

Issue 190

new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

[image, unknown]
Illustration: Clive Offley
Red desert
Profit too often means pollution. But the end also justifies the means
in the Soviet economy. Francheska Chalidze explores the roots of the
environmental crisis laying waste to the biggest country on earth.

Endless miles of beautiful taiga (Russian forest) stretch as far as the eye can see. The fertile black-earth belt of the Ukraine extends far beyond the Asian horizon. Some of the longest and most celebrated rivers of the world criss-cross the country. The coastline touches six seas and oceans. A treasure trove of resources lies hidden under the Siberian tundra. The largest body of fresh water on the face of the earth - Lake Baikal - shimmers in the cold fall sun.

The sheer enormity of the Soviet Union makes it difficult to imagine that it could suffer an environmental crisis. Surely nature on this scale can absorb the poisons spewed out by industrial society. But now that glasnost has lifted the lid Soviet people are beginning to find out just how bad things have become. Nearly all their resort beaches are unfit for swimming. Tons of untreated waste pour into their rivers. Air pollution standards - particularly on the Siberian industrial frontier - are amongst the worst in the world. A crude 'mining' approach to natural resources is eating up the taiga and squandering non-renewable fuels and ores at a frightening rate. Laws to control pollution may be on the books but enforcement is lax and penalties to violators are laughable.

Two per cent of the soil of the USSR has been lost due to inappropriate irrigation schemes that result in erosion, salinization and waterlogging. A further six per cent of land is in a critical condition. Tens of millions of hectares of valuable agricultural land have been destroyed through overgrazing or the use of ill-conceived agricultural technologies. In some dry areas a single tractor creates 13 to 14 tons of dust on every hectare of arable land. The desertification so familiar to the people of the African Sahel has resulted in the loss of some 10 per cent of the land in the Asian republics of the Soviet Union.

Further north the fragile ecology of the Siberian permafrost - permafrost that covers half the entire country is under threat. Intensive overdevelopment of industry has unleashed ecological processes that are leading to unpredictable changes. The destruction of the thin lichen and moss layer that insulates the earth is causing underground ice to melt and unleashing a disruptive warming trend, the results of which are impossible to predict.

One half of all Soviet rivers are polluted beyond allowable levels. In the worst-hit regions some 16 per cent of plant species are in peril. A tenth of all bird, a fifth of all mammal, and a fourth of all reptile species are in danger of extinction.

But the real danger is to people. Several large regions of the country (Central Asia, Moldavia, some industrial regions of Siberia) have become ecological disaster areas. The Soviet press is reporting an increased number of environment-related illnesses. Life expectancy is decreasing and infant mortality is on the rise. Many hereditary diseases are being linked to the deteriorating quality of the environment.

The very backwardness of the Soviet economy has meant the use of hazardous and obsolete technologies. Most industrial enterprises were built before World War Two or during the 1950s and 1960s when little thought was given to ecological impact. If these mills and plants were rebuilt in later years, ecological problems were still ignored. Most of them continue to operate without any proper treatment or clean-up facilities. Such technology does not even exist for community services. In one region, for example, only 24 out of 5,000 towns and villages have sewage-treatment technologies; the rest of the sewage simply pours out raw.

The wasteful mismanagement of resources by the government bureaucrats who run industry is also a major concern. Open-pit mining resulted in the loss of 60,000 hectares of fertile earth in the Kuzbass region alone. Sometimes no more than 50 per cent of the mined ores are of any use. Similar inefficiencies can be seen in oil and gas production. According to official sources 871,000 tons of oil were lost in the world-famous Tyumen oil fields and ended up polluting the surrounding land and water.

Hyper-centralized direction of what is now being called 'the command economy' has led to poor territorial distribution of industry. The results are sometimes comical. Plants requiring water for production are sited in Soviet Central Asia, where there is a water shortage. Paper mills are built in the European part of the country, where timber is in short supply. Oil refineries are located on the shore of the Black Sea, although this is one of the most popular resort areas.

Arguably the major cause of the current environmental crisis is the official Soviet obsession with secrecy - the classification of information and censorship of the media. Until glasnost the Soviet public had no idea how bad things were. Even scientific journals could not publish accurate statistics. This imposed silence allowed both local authorities and high officials to get away with murder. Just one example - the area under threat from improper irrigation was several times the officially admitted figure.

The USSR occupies about one sixth of the earth's total land mass.. This is the same as an average continent. So it is of no small concern to the rest of the world if such a huge area is in a state of environmental disaster; it has an impact on the entire ecosystem of the Earth. The USSR discharges most of its sewage and industrial wastes in the more developed European part of the country. Contaminated waters are flowing into international water like the Baltic and Black Seas which have dangerously slow water exchange. Official air-pollution figures show harmful emissions which amount to almost one kilogram per inhabitant per day. This all works its way into global atmospheric circulation. Radioactive clouds from Chernobyl reached cities as far away as Beijing in only a week.

In February 1988,the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the USSR Council of Ministers adopted a far-reaching resolution 'On the Fundamental Restructuring of Environmental Protection in the Country'. There is hope amongst Soviet environmentalists that this resolution - which commits the Soviet Government to the ecological management of the economy and adopts stiffer economic penalties to discourage polluters - will mark a new beginning. More importantly glasnost means that the Soviet Union's environmental problems are at last seeing the light of day. Soviet people aren't taking the crisis lying down. Dozens of Green groups - inspired by the European Greens - have been formed and an environmental movement is beginning to gather steam. Its greatest victory so far has been the postponement of a massive project to divert northern Siberian rivers into Central Asia. The tactics employed by these groups range from letter-writing campaigns to street demonstrations. They've had some notable successes such as the paper mill on Lake Ladoga shut down because it threatened to pollute Leningrad's water supply. Mills and factories have also been closed in Yerevan and Ufa. Such closures force officials to look for ecologically-sound alternatives.

Although some Soviet pollution problems are undoubtedly part of a worldwide ecological crisis, environmental decay seems faster than elsewhere. One of the reasons, according to Alexander Thon of the Leningrad environmental group Earth and Universe, is that the ruling ideology of Marxism-Leninism is based on the notion of 'the conquest of nature'. For Thon 'the whole thing is a giant conceit, a powerful myth that one can understand everything and re-arrange both nature and society according to such an understanding.' Earth and Universe has joined with other Leningrad environmental groups in an international campaign to clean up the Baltic and to stop the construction of an environmentally damaging dike just outside Leningrad. Thon thinks that the era and ideology of 'great projects' - with little attention to environmental or human consequences - is now being fundamentally 're-evaluated. 'But with our system of planning there is a lot of inertia, a giant lag-time between decision and implementation.' And, as elsewhere, time is running out.

Francheska Chalidze is a Soviet scientist and ecologist who is widely published In her own country.

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