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Mr Shapkhaev, thank you very much for having agreed to do this interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Buryat Regional Union on Lake Baikal was founded more than twenty years ago. What are the biggest achievements of the organisation during this time?
Major focus of our organisation is support of local initiatives. We work with population on environmental issues related to Lake Baikal’s protection and try to support initiatives aiming to resolve these issues. At the beginning, we worked quite intensively to support protected areas, to shape land use policies, which would take into consideration interests of indigenous peoples. We also worked on the dangerous business activities that appeared in Lake Baikal’s basin – such as deposit exploitation, for example, Kholodninskoye poly-metallic deposit, one of the world’s biggest deposits of lead and zinc. This problem has been an issue ever since the Soviet Union times, and at the moment, exploitation of this deposit is prohibited. Then there were other deposits, on which we helped locals to carry out their environmental impact assessment, public hearings.
At the next stage, as a result of the information campaign supported by the All-Russian NGOs and “Coalition of the Environmental Organisations in Siberia and the Far-East”, we managed to prevent allocation of petrol and gas pipes near Baikal, which were being designed in China by “Yukos Oil Company” and “RUSIA Petroleum” at the time. The latter company tried to design a gas pipeline through the Tunka National Park, while Yukos wanted to build a petrol pipeline through the same park to China from deposits in the Region of Irkutsk. Later, we started working with “Transneft”, which offered an alternative project of the ESPOOP (The Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline). Eventually, this pipeline was moved 400 kilometers to the North of Baikal. We focused on the fact that Rostekhnadzor, when it was led by retired general Pulikovsky, made a positive finding of the environmental expertise exactly for this project. We were at law with Rostekhnadzor for half a year, which, on top of everything, was represented at court by the lawyer from “Transneft” – ostentatious disregard for the rule of law! We managed to obtain a court decision in our favour: Although, at first, we lost the lawsuit at the district level, the Supreme Court of Buryatia has marked a decisive end to this case.
Apart from the environmental assessments of the dangerous capital investment projects, our organisation also supports projects in the field of energy preservation and energy efficiency, introduction of the solar and biofuel power plants in the small settlements of Buryatia, ecotourism, in other words, all that is nowadays known as the “green economy”.
Today, one of the biggest problems concerning Baikal is construction of hydropower plants (HPPs) in Mongolia. You have been intensively working on this issue, what have you managed to achieve so far?
Before dealing with Mongolian HPPs, we worked quite a lot with the issues related to the Baikal’s level regulation, which is influenced by the hydropower chain on the Angara river, taking off from the lake. We are primarily speaking about the Irkutsk HPP, which belongs to “Irkutskenergo”, part of the “En+” company, which in turn is a part of the “Rusal” Corporation led by Oleg Deripaska. In our opinion, “En+” is not regulating the lake’s level correctly, which has negative impact on the unique ecosystem of the lake, a World Natural Heritage site.
However, in comparison to the Mongolian HPPs, potentially provoking increased risk, it is nothing. Since 2010, we have started intensive work on these issues in cooperation with Mongolian non-governmental organisations. At first, the issue was analysed exclusively through the prism of international agreements and working groups, whose work was not transparent enough and bureaucratised. We saw that Mongolia was leaning towards beginning of the construction of HPPs, that is why we had to interfere into this process. We lodged a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel given the fact that Mongolia got a loan from the bank in order to design some of those HPPs. We referred to the World Bank environmental standards providing for public participation in the discussion. The complaint was written together with Mongolian NGOs as well as Mongolian and Russian citizens, who would be potentially affected by the projects. It was satisfied, and the Inspection Panel accepted it for execution. It was only after this, when we managed to achieve significant results in the procedure of the HPP’s design and to incorporate into the draft of the work specification important changes, to which owner of the contract agreed.
Naturally, the issue has not been resolved yet, but there have been significant developments. Firstly, Mongolia while preparing work specifications made a commitment to take into consideration UNESCO resolutions meant to regulate Mongolian HPPs and Angara-Enisei chain of power plants. Three years in a row, UNESCO adopted resolutions on Lake Baikal related not only to the HPPs in Russia, but also on those in Mongolia. Secondly, the entire documentation was translated into Russian language, and we asked Mongolian colleagues three times to improve the translation, which finally led to the fact that relevant discussions in Mongolia and Russia were based on the same documents. Thirdly, the term “regional environmental assessment” (in fact, a type of the strategic environmental assessment) has been distinguished from the environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedure. Thus, at first, regional environmental assessment should take place, and then, based on its results, EIA. Notably, at the stage of the regional environmental assessment, different alternatives are examined including those without HPPs. It is very likely that if all the standards and procedures are respected, Mongolia can come to conclusion it is necessary to take into consideration existing alternatives and to solve Mongolian energy problems without HPPs.
At the moment, these alternatives are being discussed by the Ministries of Energy – of Russia and of Mongolia. Our initiatives have speeded up the negotiation process, which had little progress, and helped us resolve those issues that, in our opinion, were very important for Baikal, and for the nomad animal husbandry in Mongolia, base of the country’s economy.
Buryat Regional Union on Lake Baikal is a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society. Do you feel support of the Forum and why is it important for your organisation to be its member?
Our organisation joined the Forum at its Founding Meeting in Prague. We participated in the documents’ drafting and adoption process, and it was very important for us to use the European experiences in the field of hydropower and regulated aquatic ecosystems’ management. Thus, working on the margins of the Forum, we realised that many problems we are facing are relevant for the EU as well, where, at the moment, we can observe a hydropower boom connected with the construction of intermediate and small HPPs. Obviously, many EU member states want to get rid of the energy dependence from Russia, but this hydropower boom has a very negative impact on the conservation areas of Central and Eastern Europe including the Danube’s basin and Alpine lakes. So, it was very interesting and useful to work with the EU organisations.
We are grateful to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for supporting the seminar “Sustainable Energetics and Climate Adaptation of Regulated Aquatic Ecosystems’ Management Systems” in St. Petersburg in November 2016. We were reporting our results there, and many of the ideas we then discussed with our European colleagues and experts from Russia and the EU, we will use in our day-to-day practice.
We are speaking now on the margins of another symposium of the “EU-Russia Legal Dialogue” Programme in Berlin. You have already mentioned some common issues for the European Union and Russia. In your opinion, what are the major challenges among those being discussed here are important for the future dialogue between organisations from the EU and Russia?
It is a common knowledge that on the back of various challenges and problems – such as, for example, migration and terrorism – environmental issues recede. However, those dealing with water still seem to be very sensitive for the population. The question of proper water supply provokes concern in both the EU and Russia. High waters and floods, on the one hand, and extreme droughts, on the other hand, have become more frequent, due to the climate change, which is of a cyclical pattern. In the course of public hearings on Mongolian HPPs, we realised that lack of potable water was a personal matter for the population on the shores of Baikal. As the level of Baikal has dropped, the water level in wells has dropped as well. And the population is primarily taking water from the artesian wells or the wells as such, especially those living in the small settlements, where there is no centralised water supply. Thus, the project on Mongolian HPPs was treated with great deal of interest as everybody realised that if those HPPs were constructed, then the situation would become even worse.
The climate issue itself is being primarily analysed as something with a longer time lag, but when speaking about the climate change in its connection with the river flows and fresh water deficit, then it is the topic of today’s discussion, which is important to deal with just as the problem of the greenhouse gas emissions of anthropogenic origin.
What would you like to wish the members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for the coming year?
In Buryatia, we have long New Year holidays – Catholic Christmas, 1st of January, Orthodox Christmas… Moreover, there is a Buryat New Year, or Sagaalgan, a holiday of the white crescent according to the lunar calendar. And according to all these calendars, I would like to wish that our Forum, which brings together very different NGOs, and not only those working in the field of environment protection, would focus on those problems, which are disturbing for the people. It is only by resolving economic and social issues and providing targeted help to the citizens, we can come to the point of resolving challenges related to the human rights and environmental protection. It is important to remember that right to a healthy environment is also an indefeasible human right. Our major task is to inspire citizens, so that they can actively protect their rights using the positive results we achieve.

The interview was recorded by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on 17 November 2017 in Berlin, Germany.