The Soviets have turned the Volga into a machine. Then the machine broke down.


Since almost all Volga cities and towns – and also Moscow via the canal – use the river for their water supply, this pollution is associated with a high bill for water treatment. “The worse the water in the Volga, the more expensive it is to make it potable,” notes Demin. Given that 60 million people live in the Volga Basin, about half of Russian industry and a comparable part of agriculture, the costs add up.

A recent analysis compiled by Carbon Brief, a UK climate media company, highlights the USSR and Russia third in the world in historic greenhouse gas emissions of all time. A national assessment report produced by Russian climate scientists in 2014 found that the country’s average annual temperatures rose twice as fast as the global average during a period of man-made climate change. The report also says the trend is expected to continue. The effects of climate change, driven in part by Soviet industrial development, are already visible in Russia, from the deterioration of permafrost to desertification in the country’s more agricultural southern regions. The same large-scale industrial development that spawned the Great Volga and was powered by the river’s water also contributed to the global problem of climate change – which has now threatened millions of people in cities along the Volga with water scarcity.

When I visited the last junction of the Cascade, the Cheboksarskoe Reservoir, about 370 miles east of Moscow, in 2010, I saw algal blooms that made the water look like a witch’s brew.

The nearby city of Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia, one of several ethnic republics in Russia, was green, calm and welcoming when I visited. I was part of a press tour organized by RusHydro, the owner of the cascade, who had campaigned with the government to raise the water level in the reservoir. Years later, it is still five meters deeper where RusHydro wants it, because the Cheboksarskoe reservoir is the place where, after four glorious decades, the Great Volga Project finally stumbled.

In the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev decided with glasnost that the Soviet Union could use a little more freedom of the press and transparency, and let citizens discuss and even criticize their government’s decisions. And so the irreversible environmental damage on the Volga gradually got into a broad public discussion. A 1989 book about the river called on the people behind the construction of reservoirs, which resulted in “the life-giving water of the Volga being turned into dead water without our being able to do anything about it”. “To boast the world that the Volga-matushka [mother-river] was tamed several times and still called themselves her sons. Those who tamed them also doomed them to a long, terrible and painful disease, ”the book says.

“Whose land is being destroyed and whose water is being polluted so that someone else can make money?”

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