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Russia: Giant Dam Project Could Spell Disaster For Indigenous Tribe

An Evenk settlement in Russia's Far North (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW -- The Evenks, an indigenous tribe that leads a nomadic life herding reindeer in northern Siberia, fears its way of life will be lost forever if plans go ahead to build one of the world's largest hydroelectric dams.

Tribesmen say their already-depleted numbers will be forced to leave their homeland and abandon their centuries-old way of life if the dam is built.

But the energy company behind the project says the power station is essential to aid economic development in the region.

"If the plans that we know about for the dam come to fruition, it can mean only one thing: resettlement," says Pavel Sulyandzige, the deputy director of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. "The indigenous people who live there will be moved away from their traditional way of life -- they'll simply be thrown off their land."

The dam would cost an estimated $13 billion and would necessitate the flooding of an area of virgin forest and tundra in Russia's Far North that measures between 3 million and 5 million hectares, according to Greenpeace Russia.

Many Evenks have already given up their traditional lifestyle for homes in larger towns and cities. But Sulyandzige insists that the plans, for on the Lower Tunguska River, will effectively kill off the last remnants of the tribe.

"It isn't the whole tribe, it's only a part of it -- but it's the part that still follows the traditional way of life: reindeer-herding, hunting," Sulyandzige says. "Altogether, four villages are threatened with flooding, and the number of people who would be affected is about 1,000."

Questioning The Project

Now the Evenks have enlisted the help of ecological organizations, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, in their fight against the dam builders.

"Even in the dark days of the Soviet Union, when the leadership [of the country] was very strict, not a single indigenous tribe was moved by force," Sulyandzige says. "But it seems now, in a system of supposed developing democracy, this is exactly what is happening -- and no one is asking these people what their opinion is."

Hydro-OGK, the Russian hydroelectric power company behind the project, insists consultations with the Evenk tribe will be carried out before the dam is built.

"Before we make the decision whether or not to take on the Evenk hydroelectric dam project, we must first assess the situation," says Rasim Khaziakhmetov, a member of Hydro-OGK's executive board. "We are looking at our own Russian experience, and at the international experience in the field of dam building, so that we can determine how great the risks are compared to the benefits. Obviously if the risks are greater, then we won't take on this project."

A settlement of around 300 in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug (ITAR-TASS)

Hydro-OGK, created as part of the Russian electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES), is among the companies leading the charge to improve the country's domestic electricity production.

Hydroelectric power generation currently provides roughly 20 percent of all power produced in Russia, and demand is growing rapidly. Khaziakhmetov says the Lower Tunguska dam will boost development in the region and provide Russia with renewable energy sources in place of oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power.

"Today we lag far behind other developed countries," Khaziakhmetov says. "Russia realizes only about 20 percent of its hydroelectric power potential; Britain realizes 100 percent; Norway realizes 100 percent; the United States realizes almost 100 percent. That's to say that among developed countries, Russia is about the only one not realizing its full capacity."

National Choice

Russia's economic development has put a severe strain on the country's electrical grid, and comes at a time when most energy projects are focused on hydrocarbon extractables destined for export rather than domestic consumption.

Russia exports about 2 1/2 times more oil than it consumes. According to BP, which operates several oil and gas fields in Russia, in 2006 the country produced 9.769 million barrels of oil a day but consumed just 2.735 million of that; the rest was exported. According to the same report, Russia produced 612 billion cubic meters of gas in 2006, consuming only 432 billion cubic meters.

High energy prices mean Russia is likely to channel most of its energy into lucrative foreign markets for as long as it can, while depending on alternatives like the dam project to meet demands at home.

"For Russia, it's a choice," says Julian Lee, a senior analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. "Do you maximize the exports of oil and gas to generate foreign exchange revenues and, perhaps, political influence, while seeking alternative sources of energy to meet the domestic market?" Or do you supply the domestic market with energy derived from oil and gas, and see your export market shrinking?" I think that the choice at the moment is where possible provide the domestic electricity from other sources to enable the country to maintain oil and gas exports."

Russia exports so much of its oil and gas, Lee says, in order to boost its clout on the international stage. "Clearly both the oil and gas have very lucrative export markets, and Russia's economic growth and, indeed, a lot of the resurgence perhaps of Russia's geopolitical strength has come from its very significant oil and gas exports," Lee says.

Really Necessary?

Still, the Russian government has so far committed relatively little funding into renewable energy projects; according to Hydro-OGK board member Khaziakhmetov, most of the company's financial backing comes from private investors.

A meeting of Evenks in 2003 (ITAR-TASS)

Khaziakhmetov says he is trying to encourage the government to support hydroelectric power projects. "Once the dam has been built, we will have a source of energy that can continue to function practically forever," he says.

Mikhail Kreindlin, an expert at Greenpeace Russia, disagrees and says building the dam makes no sense.

"No one seems to be able to answer this basic question: Why is this hydroelectric dam necessary?" Kreindlin says. "Turukhansk, and this part of the Krasnoyarsk region, doesn't need the dam, because there's simply nothing there. The only enterprise in the area is the Norilsk factory, but that already has two hydroelectric stations supplying its energy."

Kreindlin calls it "a typical Soviet-style river-diversion project, the kind where they used to play around with the course of rivers."

Sulyandzige warns that for the few hundred Evenks whose pastures lie in the way of the proposed dam, time is running out.

"Unfortunately, we don't have high hopes for the future. I've had conversations [with Hydro-OGK] where I've said that we should have started discussions a year ago. But unfortunately we're starting today on very bad terms; we don't have any faith in them," Sulyandzige says. "A year ago they told us not to worry, that there would be consultations and all the rest of it. But now they are presenting us with a fait accompli."

Growing Ranks

The Evenk hydroelectric power station is not the only energy project environmentalists have been concerned about in recent years.

"Any major energy project worries ecologists, and in particular the proposed Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil-pipeline project was of great concern," says Yevgeny Shvarts, the director of conservation policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia. "But today the project that worries the WWF most is the plan to build a series of [hydroelectric] dams on the Amur River."

The Khingansky dam is one of 12 dams proposed for the Amur and its Russian tributaries. Under an agreement between Russia and China, the two countries plan to build the dam together and share the electricity it produces. They say it will boost economic development in the region.

But environmental groups say the dams would destroy hundreds of square miles of forest and taiga. They would also wipe out many endangered species, including the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, the Oriental white stork, and the soft-shelled turtle. The great Siberian sturgeon would lose 80 percent of its spawning grounds and rare birds, which depend on the river for fish, including the white-tailed eagle and the fish owl, would also suffer.

But for Shvarts, it is less the projects themselves than the politics behind them that are of most concern.

"Russia is the only country in the world where if you want to build a new power station, you don't need any permission from the government," Shvarts says. "This ridiculous notion of the former government's, that it needed to break down these bureaucratic barriers in order to fight corruption, barriers that in fact protected the environment, has, in our view, created an ecological time bomb in the development of Russia's energy supplies."