Environmental degradation and efforts to reverse it on Olkhon Island

We have just returned from 2 nights on Olkhon Island, the biggest island on Lake Baikal. Now I understand how the lake can be seen on a world map!! According to the guidebook, it is the world’s deepest (1637m) and oldest (50 million years) lake, has hundreds of endemic species (found nowhere else on earth) and holds 20% of the world’s fresh water supplies – which means that if the rest of the world’s drinking water ran out tomorrow, it could supply the global population with water for the next 40 years.


There are a few settlements on Olkhon, the biggest being Kuzhir, halfway up the western side of the island, which has around 1000 inhabitants. It is a popular place for tourists to go who are travelling through, if they can bear the 7 hour bone rattling minibus ride from the nearest city, Irkutsk! However, to give an idea of its remoteness, they only got electricity on the island in 2005 and during the winter when the lake is freezing over, the only way to reach the mainland is by plane or helicopter.


On going there I was struck by a number of things:

– the dramatic scenery and the deep blue of the lake first and foremost

– the aridity of the landscape

– the seeming lack of birdlife

– the lack of rules about where people can camp, picnic and drive (though they do have signs about not chopping down trees, hunting, and leaving hazardous substances)

– the amount of rubbish left behind, presumably (though maybe it is an unfair assumotion on my part!) by tourists who have just been enjoying those same natural surroundings


When we got chatting with our hostess Gala, and I commented about the need for a clean up day like Musora Bolshe Net organise, it turns out she is the main coordinator for the network on the island!! She explained how she organised an event a couple of years ago when children from Irkutsk came and stayed at her guesthouse and did a big clean up.


We learnt that she moved to the island 7 years ago, whilst her husband has lived here all his life. She said they did not intend to set up home here permanently, but now she couldn’t imagine going back to the city. She is quite involved in environmental action, e.g. playing host to scientists who assess the island’s UNESCO World Heritage status (who were there while we were, although I didn’t realise until after they had left!), coordinating clean ups and working with environmental activists in Irkutsk.


Most environmental activism is actually amongst people in Irkutsk whilst those on the island just get on with their lives. A few years ago, Putin’s government tried to establish a project with China to run an oil pipeline along the shore of Lake Baikal. She said the local population on the island had a lot of pressure put on them but thanks to Irkutsk activists and international campaigners getting involved and raising awareness it did not go ahead.


However, according to my guidebook (fount of all knowledge for me while internet is limited!), some oil and gas pipelines are already present – which seems beyond stupid when it is an earthquake prone zone, meaning there is a reasonable risk that the pipes may rupture, releasing their contents into the lake. It also says how despite Baikal’s UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and having many nature reserves/national parks around it and on Olkhon Island, its environmental threats are many – industrial waste from nearby settlements and factories, over-hunting and fishing of species, not to mention the pipelines.


It feels a bit depressing knowing about so many small and large scale threats, having seen the natural beauty of the place and learnt of its global importance for water and biodiversity. Gala seems reasonably positive though – there are more elk here than there were a few years ago thanks to media attention shaming the hunters, they stopped the recent pipeline development project from going ahead, and laws have been passed to prevent the development of houses and buildings close to the beach.


Fingers crossed I can make contact with those UNESCO assessors who we crossed over with – they also happen to work for Greenpeace!



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