Sold down the river

The Angara, the only river draining Lake Baikal, might disappear by 2020, as it is progressively dammed for massive hydroelectric schemes designed to aid the development of … China.

At the end of the 1970s, building started on the Boguchany Hydroelectric Power Plant (BoGES), in the eastern part of Russia’s vast Krasnoyarsk Region. It was planned as the fourth hydropower scheme on the Angara river, a tributary of the mighty Yenisei. By the early 1990s the course of the river had been blocked by a concrete dam; and some villages in the area, scheduled for flooding, had been evacuated and demolished. But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the project was frozen for lack of funds, until 2006, when it was resuscitated by a consortium of the parasitic businesses that are busy sucking Russia’s natural resources dry, aided and abetted by the Russian government, which took upon itself responsibility for clearing the area to be affected, of trees, buildings and people. Big business (Rusal and RusHydro) meanwhile got on with building the power plant and the aluminium smelting plant that would use two thirds of the electricity it would produce. A moth-eaten idea was wrapped up in a big shiny package and presented to the public as a private-public enterprise – ‘The Combined Power and Water Development Plan for the Lower Angara Area’ – which would bring the local people a host of benefits: jobs, infrastructure, tax revenue to boost local authority budgets. In Russia, people only ever talk about the plusses; no one mentions the minuses, but they crawled like cockroaches out of the woodwork as work got under way.

The massive Boguchany Hydroelectric Power Plant came online in October 2012. Environmental groups claim the dam represents a grave threat to the ecology of the Angara River. Photo Creative Commons: flickr/ Sergey Norin

A moth-eaten idea was wrapped up in a big shiny package and presented to the public as a private-public enterprise which would bring the local people a host of benefits.

The project was being completed on the basis of technical plans drawn up in 1979, which assumed an outflow head (the difference in height between the top of the dam and the water's outflow) of 208 metres; scientists had argued in the 1990s for a limit of 185 metres, but this lower figure had never been officially confirmed. The potential negative effects on the river and the entire local ecosystem could be devastating, but the companies involved refused to carry out an environmental impact assessment or undergo an official environmental review. At the insistence of environmental scientists, the district prosecutor’s office tried to obtain a court order to force Rusal and RusHydro to carry out such an assessment, but failed in its attempt. The power plant completion project steamed past the public – or more accurately, steamrollered it. Thousands of families in old villages along the Angara, whose lives had depended on hunting and fishing, were effectively deported to small provincial towns, to a new and alien life in high-rise chicken coops, and with likely unemployment. By October 2012, there was no way back: the solid log houses built by their grandfathers lay in ashes at the bottom of the Boguchany reservoir.

Prospikhino: one of several villages flooded by the construction of the Boguchany reservoir. Photo: plotina.net/boges-les-idet-pod-vodu/

Profits and losses

While some (government officials and financiers) ceremonially launched the first stage of the hydro scheme, while happily calculating how much money they would make from it, others (the environmental scientists) calculated the bitter losses it would bring. According to Dr Leonid Bezrukov of the V.B. Sochava Institute of Geography of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the damage caused by the Power Station to the area in terms of forest, land, water and fishing resources, as well as birds and animals, will amount to 4.5 billion roubles (£90 million) – that is assuming an outflow head of only 185 metres. The people who stand to make money from the project, however, insist that the scheme won’t be profitable at that height, and thus the second stage of development, planned for completion by the end of 2014, will take it to 208 metres, which the ecologists predict will mean damage to the area of the order of 100 billion roubles (£200 million). The chief loss will be to forestry and agriculture (around 40% to both).

‘The fish will get sick and die, and the water won’t be fit to drink.’

But the scientists’ main worry is the fact that the dam floor has not been cleared in line with regulations: the forest has only been partially removed. ‘We set up camp on the Kova River at one of the places where the government health and safety inspectors were checking out the clearing work,’ says Platon Terentyev, a young photographer just returned in June from an expedition to the Angara. ‘Everything was lovely there – all clean, not a tree stump in sight, but when we rowed a kilometre downstream, you could see the stumps; another kilometer, and the felled trees were lying all higgledy-piggledy – they hadn’t even been burned! A bit further on, and they hadn’t even been felled at all, just drowned. If the wood starts to rot it releases phenol, which is a poison. The fish will get sick and die, and the water won’t be fit to drink.’

The forest beside the Kova River had not been cleared in accordance with regulations. The trees were left to rot in the water, releasing toxic phenol. Photo: plotina.net/boges-chto-uhodit-pod-vodu/

The regional branch of the Russian WWF has called on the public-private owners of the Boguchany scheme to halt the second stage of the project, since it will lead to the flooding of 10 million cubic metres of forest over an area of 120,000 hectares (1200 km2) in two Siberian regions, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk. The Prosecutor General’s office has reminded the Russian government that it is bound by law to take environmental safety issues into account when completing the project; and the two local environmental groups, ‘Dam’ and ‘No Dam!’ are tireless in their warnings about its risks.

To which warnings of devastation, the public-private owners of the Boguchany scheme pay absolutely no heed. The reaction reminds one of Krylov’s famous fable, ‘The Cat and the Cook:’ the cook lectures the cat on its wickedness in stealing and eating a pie; and the cat listens but keeps right on eating. What compensation will the owners of BoGES be paying? Not a penny. As Leonid Bezrukov says, ‘Russia hasn’t yet developed a legal framework for compelling investors to compensate a region, education authority or local population for damage caused by their actions. The power plant belongs to private individuals who are making an enormous profit from it, while the government is responsible for the dams, and has to pay the expenses connected with their construction out of public funds, i.e. taxpayers’ money.’

Follow the money

Will Russia even benefit at all from the Boguchany scheme? The ‘List of persons affiliated to BoGES Ltd’ states,that 95.43% of ordinary shares in the company belong to BOGES LIMITED, a company registered in Nicosia, Cyprus. In other words, the hydroelectric facility is controlled from a sunny island in the Med; and that is where the tax raised from its profits will undoubtedly end up.

Dirty kilowatts

RusHydro is planning a fifth hydropower station on the Angara river, at Motyginsk, while Rusal’s sister company, EvroSibEnergo (they are both owned by Oleg Deripaska) announced its intention of constructing yet another, the sixth on the Angara, which it referred to as the second stage of the ‘Angaro-Yenisei Cluster’ regional development programme.

The ‘dirty kilowatts’, like the profits generated by them, were never intended for the local people of the Lower Angara

One glance at the 2008 ‘Strategic Development Plan for the Krasnoyarsk Region up to 2020’ tells you about the government’s priorities for megaprojects of this kind: the words ‘raw materials’ occur 47 times in the document, ‘roads’ to reach these raw materials 26 times, ‘living standards’ three times, ‘environment’ – not once. Electricity prices, however, for the local population, would more than double by 2010. How can that be? Because the ‘dirty kilowatts’, like the profits generated by them, were never intended for the local people of the Lower Angara. Siberia, choking on toxic industrial emissions; and Angara, clogged up with dams, will be working for the development of China.

99.99% of the shares in EvroSibEnergo is owned by EUROSIBENERGO PLC, a company also registered in Nicosia, Cyprus. The company’s main assets are close to Russia’s borders with north-east China; and their interests lie there as well. In 2011, Russia exported 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to China, in 2012 that figure had more than doubled, to 2.6 billion; and an intergovernmental agreement posits a rise to 20 billion kilowatt hours a year by 2020.

Talk is cheap

‘What is happening demonstrates the priority given to making a fast buck while cutting incidental costs to the bone’ says Aleksandr Kolotov, the Russian coordinator of the Canada/USA based non-profit alliance ‘Rivers without Borders’. It is not only environmentalists who hold that opinion: as Siberia becomes nothing more than a raw materials colony, even Mikhail Azanov, CEO of the major regional timber company ‘Angara Paper’ has his doubts: these new hydropower plants are a serious threat to his sector, which is heavily dependent on the Angara for transporting logs downstream for processing.

The idea of the Angaro-Yenisei Hydroelectric Cluster was heavily promoted at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum KEF-2013 in February of this year, which was graced by the presence of Dmitry Medvedev. Even as a session debated ‘green energy,’ in the room next door, agreements were being initialed for yet more hydroelectric schemes on the Angara. As a journalist acquaintance remarked, ‘Siberia will soon be torn apart – in fact, it’s happening already. And an economic forum is a feast day for all the different vultures to divide it up and decide which of them gets what piece.’   

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About the author

Margarita Baranova is a journalist in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. She has covered environmental issues in the region closely for several years.