US workshop identifies Lake Baikal issues

A workshop at Lake Tahoe in California, USA, brought Russian and Mongolian scientists and policymakers from the Selenga river basin together for the first time. Tony Brunello, executive director of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, reports on this successful initiative to share resource management experiences.

Since Mongolian independence, bilateral cooperation with Russia on transboundary environmental agreements has been minimal. Cooperation on basic environmental science, and monitoring has also practically stopped, although efforts within each country have continued independently.

There is a clear need for capacity-building and exchange of experience and information between Russia and Mongolia on issues such as regulatory, scientific and methodological integrated management of the Selenga watershed. In 2002, both countries signed a joint agreement to develop a work plan by 2010, with a special committee developed for the Selenga River.

In August 2004, the US Forest Service, with the Tahoe-Baikal Institute (TBI), hosted 15 government and academic representatives from Russia and Mongolia to discuss transboundary water cooperation in the Selenga River watershed, and what solutions were needed to address them.

The Selenga River crosses the Russian and Mongolian border and is the major tributary into Lake Baikal, the world’s largest (by volume) and oldest freshwater lake. The Selenga’s water catchment area is roughly the size of France and is split in half between Russia and Mongolia. Over 4 million people live in the watershed, which includes Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Baator.

Recognizing the unique natural biodiversity in the area, both Russia and Mongolia have developed a network of over 48 protected areas in the watershed, including a Ramsar wetland protection site in Russia’s Selenga delta.

Increased pressure for mining, farming, grazing, and industrial development, along with the transformation of Russian public lands to private ownership, has coincided with increasing levels of air and water pollution threatening water quality, human health, and regional biodiversity.

The Russian and Mongolian governments and NGOs, as well as partners in the United States, are becoming increasingly aware of the need for environmental protection. However, minimal government resources have been allocated to this end.

The TBI is working with a host of Russian and Mongolian national and international government, business, and non-profit organizations to assist in developing regional action plans and projects for the Selenga that will preserve its unique natural and cultural resources for future generations.

The workshop programme consisted of meetings with local, state, and federal policymakers from the US, site visits, and discussions with representatives from NGOs and environmental organizations that contribute to the management of the Tahoe basin. These included California’s under secretary of resources, Karen Scarborough; chief assistant attorney general Rick Frank, and John Singlaub, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).

The agenda was built around practical lessons from the experience of managing the Tahoe basin.

Other meetings were organized to offer delegates the broader picture of lake basin management, including economic and environmental consideration to development, discussions with fire managers, and site visits to restored and reclaimed lands. The Sierra Business Council offered an overview of the complexities of economic development in the Sierra Nevada and how to balance the health of the economy and health of the environment.

The three-day workshop included discussion, watershed planning, and tentative project proposals that continue to be formulated. Representatives from the Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada, Reno and Las Vegas, Lakenet, and the USFS attended.

Discussions sparked breakout sessions in smaller groups, based on areas of interest including:

· science and monitoring

· economic development

· regional planning and watershed management

· forest, rangeland, and farmland management

By identifying key areas of interest, delegates synthesized information to establish future partnerships between Mongolia, Russian, and the United States.

Three key issues were identified:

1. There is no coordinated science and monitoring effort to assess regional environmental trends. More surprisingly, Mongolian
and Russian colleagues
have very different standards
for collecting scientific data,
despite both being within
the Soviet Union for over
50 years, which makes it
difficult to merge data on
transboundary waters.

2. There is minimal capacity within the Baikal watershed for addressing regional concerns and issues. Both countries’ federal agencies have limited staff, budgets and in-house knowledge, which hamper the monitoring, analysis, and enforcement of existing laws. Consequently, there is no cohesive regional plan despite pockets of rapid development in ecologically sensitive zones.

3. There is a growing interest and demand by regulators to apply market incentives, instead of heavy ‘command and control’ techniques, to ensure environmental compliance. However, there is limited experience in applying these market incentives to local conditions.

This programme has opened a cohesive dialogue between Russia and Mongolia concerning the Selenga and Baikal watersheds -something that had never occurred before.

Throughout the programme, interpretation between English, Mongolian, and Russian was a primary challenge, met by six interpreters.

Contact: Tahoe-Baikal Institute

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie