Chinese Development, Tourism in Focus as Russia Acts to Protects Lake Baikal

Chinese development and tourism is in the heart of a heated debate on the degradation of Russia’s treasured Lake Baikal, as the government is tightening environmental protection, The South China Morning Post reports.

This month, President Vladimir Putin signed new protocols clarifying how authorities will monitor “compliance with the law on Lake Baikal’s conservation and environmental rehabilitation.”

According to analysts, domestic issues – including a backlash over the government’s hand in accelerating environmental damage – prompted the Kremlin to act, but concerns over Chinese activities in the area also played a part.

The new protocols also call for improved state environmental monitoring of the lake’s unique ecosystem, aquatic animal and plant life, prevention of and response to risks, analysis of the pressure from fishing on its biological resources, as well as measures to conserve those unique aquatic resources.

Eugene Simonov, coordinator at Rivers Without Boundaries, said the protocols were a bid by Moscow to show it was concerned about the lake, where mismanagement and relaxed standards had damaged water quality and the ecosystem – drawing concern from UNESCO, which has designated it a World Heritage Site.

But it was also related to local concerns that an influx of Chinese money and tourists in the region was making matters worse.

“One of the leading causes of problems on Lake Baikal is the development of the lake shore for tourism these days, which, at least in the Irkutsk region, is greatly driven by Chinese business,” said Simonov, who has worked extensively on the area’s environmental issues.

He pointed to the “not legal” hotels opened by local and Chinese businesses that cater to the increasing number of tourists from China, saying they stood out as easy scapegoats.

“The real driving force is the desire of locals to privatize the lake shore, illegally, but the Chinese demand is one of the reasons they want to privatize it, while Chinese businesses are among the most visible because they are foreign,” he said.