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The Moscow Times (Issue 4084), 12 February 2009

Siberian Dam Threatens to Destroy a Culture

KRASNOYARSK -- When plans to build the Turukhansk hydropower station fell through in the late 1980s, the indigenous Evenk population breathed a collective sigh of relief. The plant's dam and resulting reservoir would have flooded their villages, forcing them to relocate and abandon their traditional way of life.

Twenty years later, the state has revived the Brezhnev-era plans to construct Russia's largest hydropower plant, much to the horror of the Evenks and environmentalists who say the resulting reservoir would fundamentally alter the region's ecosystem and possibly disturb underground nuclear test sites.

The dam -- now renamed Evenkia -- is part of Russia's plan to double its hydropower production by 2020, and with a projected capacity of 8 gigawatts to 12 gigawatts it would be one of the world's largest hydropower stations. Opponents argue that investment to reduce gas flaring would be more profitable and that the state is overestimating demand for new power, particularly now that economic growth has faltered.

But state-controlled RusHydro, a descendent of former power monopoly Unified Energy System, is pushing ahead, and it has hired Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin as a consultant on the project. If the preliminary plan receives final approval, construction could start as early as 2010.

The Evenks, however, have decided not to wait. The indigenous group is federally recognized as one of 40 in Siberia and the Far East with fewer than 50,000 people, a designation that guarantees them the right to remain on their ancestral land. After losing their political autonomy in 2007, the Evenks are now making their case with the federal government.

On Tuesday, indigenous and environmental groups delivered a petition with 8,000 signatures to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asking him to scrap the plan.

"The project is totally destructive to the Evenk people," Stanislav Uvachan, who coordinates a local association of Evenks, said by telephone from district capital Tura.

Representatives of the group are scattered throughout Siberia, the Far East and northern China. The Evenkia reservoir would displace up to 7,000 of them from five villages and Tura, including 5,000 who still lead the traditional lifestyle of fishing and deer herding, Uvachan said.

Uvachan said relocation would further dissolve the Evenks among urban populations, divorcing them from their villages and pastures, traditions and burial grounds. And even if RusHydro builds them new houses, living near the reservoir will be impossible, he said.

"It's 50 degrees below zero here right now. With higher humidity, the area will be uninhabitable."

Shelved by Soviets

In the late 1980s, the project was put on hold because of the Evenks' vocal protests and criticism from the Siberian Academy of Sciences. In the early 1990s, it was shelved altogether because the new federal government could not afford the massive infrastructure outlays of the Soviet planned economy.

Anatoly Chubais, then head of UES, reinitiated talks on building the Evenkia plant in 2005, which he has since called a "super-mega-project" and "the pearl in the crown." He now heads the State Nanotechnology Corporation.

One possible site for the dam on the Lower Tunguska River would flood about a million hectares of primary forest, which would alter climatic processes locally and throughout Russia, environmentalists said at a recent conference in Krasnoyarsk. Additionally, the decomposing trees would remove oxygen from the water, killing the river's fish and plant life, and the flood zone would cover a site used in the 1970s for underground nuclear testing, the environmentalists said.

The other spot for the dam would likely result in an overflow of reservoir water into the Yenisei River, according to cartographic research presented at the conference.

"Hydropower is one of the cleanest forms of energy, but the costs are too high for such powerful hydroplants built in valley regions," said Valery Yermikov, a scientist who was on the expert committee of the Siberian Academy of Sciences that evaluated the Turukhansk project in 1988.

The committee decided that the project should not advance because it would alter the river's temperature and come at a high cost to the local population. "There is no other place to move them within the region, since all of the pastures are in the valley," Yermikov said by phone from Novosibirsk.

"Nobody is asking our opinion this time," he added.

A RusHydro spokeswoman said the company was addressing the earlier concerns in its preliminary planning, and it will release a report on the possible impact of the dam in the first half of 2009, she said, declining to be identified in line with company policy.

"We cannot say for sure whether it will be built," she said. The technical parameters are not yet set in stone, but RusHydro has allocated money for further research this year, she said.

Too Big to Forecast

Environmentalists say, however, that no amount of planning will be able to determine the massive project's effect on the climate, groundwater levels, permafrost behavior or fish populations.

"We're not against hydropower in general, but we are against projects whose environmental effects are impossible to predict," said Alexey Zimenko, of the Russian Biodiversity Conservation Center.

Indeed, the grandiose infrastructure projects of the Soviet era resulted in not a few environmental catastrophes. The Aral Sea that once straddled Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is now a series of ponds after river water was diverted for cotton irrigation, and damming along the Volga River has led to the virtual disappearance of the sturgeon there.

Closer to home for the Evenks is the Krasnoyarsk Hydropower Plant, a depiction of which is on the 10-ruble note. Built in 1964 about 30 kilometers from Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River, the station is now owned by Oleg Deripaska's Basic Element holding and powers a nearby RusAl aluminum smelter.

The dam created a 200-kilometer stretch of river that never freezes, or polynya, a word borrowed from Russian by early polar explorers. The polynya was 10 times the planned size and, together with the reservoir, has made the region warmer and more humid.

The Evenkia dam and two other new hydropower stations in the region have received preliminary approval as part of the Energy Ministry's development plan through 2020. "The General Plan of Power Sector Facilities Placement," as the document is called, was approved by the government in February 2008.

The Problem of Planning

The Energy Ministry says the plan is necessary to make sure that industrial consumers don't run out of power as demand increases. But critics say the old habit of forecasting supply and demand leads to economic inefficiencies and discourages consumers from investing in energy efficiency.

After falling drastically in the 1990s, power consumption has been growing again, and some regions, including Moscow, have had shortages in recent years as industrial consumers compete for electricity with growing cities.

The most recent plan forecasts energy-consumption growth of about 5 percent per year. By 2020, it sees demand reaching a base level of 347 gigawatts, or a maximum level of 397 gigawatts, requiring 137 to 187 gigawatts of new capacity. In Siberia, demand will grow 55 percent by 2020, driven by the power-hungry oil and metals sectors, according to the document.

Commodities prices have halved since this summer, however, and companies are now slashing production and capital expenditure to survive the crisis. The Energy Ministry's most recent prognosis sees energy consumption in 2009 staying flat, although some experts have predicted a fall of up to 8.5 percent.

"The plan is based on overly optimistic prognoses made a couple of years ago," said Igor Bashmakov, of the Center for Energy Efficiency. "Even before the crisis, it significantly overestimated future consumption."

Even if the plan assured that new capacity kept up with demand, it would leave no reason to invest in efficiency, he said.

The World Bank estimated last year that Russia could cut its energy use 45 percent by investing in efficiency projects, while making the sector less wasteful would cost one-third the amount that must be spent on new capacity.

The Evenkia hydroplant would cost at least $20 billion, if an industry standard capital cost of $2,500 per kilowatt is used.

Some of the power generated by the Evenkia station would be delivered to the Tyumen region, feeding the oil and gas producers there. That decision is especially irksome to environmentalists, who are pushing oil companies to stop flaring, or burning off the associated gas that is a byproduct of crude production.

Russia now burns 38 billion cubic meters per year, or 45 percent of its associated gas, a percentage larger than in Nigeria, the World Bank study said.

"Instead of adding more energy from Evenkia to an already energy-excessive region, why isn't anyone investing in capturing associated gas and making production more efficient?" said Alexei Knizhnikov, an oil and gas expert at the World Wildlife Fund.

A Hydro Powerhouse

RusHydro, whose government-controlled board is chaired by Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, has more than 50 stations under its wing and is one of the largest companies spun off from UES. The generator plans to increase capacity by up to 33.4 gigawatts between 2008 and 2020, according to the strategy on their web site.

"The untapped hydropotential of Siberia is 80 percent," said the RusHydro spokeswoman. "This potential has to be developed," she said.

Oleg Deripaska's heavily indebted RusAl and RusHydro are 50-50 partners in a joint venture to build an aluminum smelter and a hydropower plant near the Krasnoyarsk village of Boguchany. The power station is expected to come on line next year as planned, but an official said Tuesday that the smelter, with a planned capacity of 600,000 tons, would be pushed back to 2012.

The station would add another 3 gigawatts of power to the region, although the main intended consumer remains on the drawing board.

Konstantin Reilly, a utilities analyst at Finam, said he doubted that large-scale infrastructure projects would now be finished on time.

"Such resources can only be tapped from the state's coffers," he said."But the government would rather spend money on saving the economy."

A spokesman at the Energy Ministry said the General Plan was under review and that it would give amendments to the government, which will consider them "in the first quarter."

Small Fish in a Big Pond

While the latest economic collapse may again delay construction of the dam, the Evenks would rather count on support from the government than shifting economic winds.

But a change in political structure of the region has muffled their voices, said Uvachan, the Evenk organizer.

In 2007, the sparsely populated Evenkia Autonomous District was merged into the Krasnoyarsk region, reducing the percentage of Evenks in the region from about 20 percent to 0.2 percent.

"Before, we could make decisions for ourselves, now everything is decided in Krasnoyarsk and Moscow," Uvachan said.

Regional media present critics of the project as people whose goal is to "destabilize and discredit the country," as regional channel TRK alleged in its coverage of the conference in Krasnoyarsk.

"We are told, there are too few of you, you don't matter," Uvachan said.

Maria Antonova

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