Months after the World Wildlife Fund warned that five ancient Russian forests face a real threat of destruction, President Vladimir Putin has publicly pledged to look into the situation that has arisen in one of them.
However, the local leadership in southeastern Daghestan, where Russia's only liana forest is located, continues to insist that a planned controversial hydrological project in no way endangers that woodland.
Covering a surface area of some 2,000 hectares, the forest in question -- characterized by tangles of clinging, woody vines that extend toward the canopy -- lies close to the border between Russia and Azerbaijan. For the past several years, the local population, who are predominantly members of the Lezgin minority (Daghestan's fourth-largest ethnic group), have been campaigning to halt construction of artesian wells and a water main to supply the 120,000-plus population of the Caspian coastal town of Derbent with drinking water. It was Arif Kerimov, chairman of the Federal Lezgin National-Cultural Autonomy (FLNKA), who raised the issue with Putin at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations on July 20.
Even before work got under way in late 2013, residents of villages close to the Samur forest had registered a drop in the level of the local groundwater that they attributed to the excessive use for irrigation purposes of water from the Samur River, which marks the border between Russia and Azerbaijan. The local villagers fear that tapping into the artesian waters will accelerate the ongoing degradation of the forest that, they argue, has resulted from the fall in the water table.
The Republic of Daghestan government, on the other hand, has repeatedly insisted that the artesian waters are separated from the groundwater by strata of impermeable rock and so tapping into the former will not adversely affect the latter, which provide moisture to the roots of the forest trees. The government says other factors, including unauthorized felling and grazing, are behind the shrinkage of the total forest area in recent years.
The Daghestani geologists who in 2007 drafted the original plans to drill artesian wells (to a depth of 53-65 meters) to channel water to Derbent reportedly concluded on the basis of an environmental study that the project did not pose any environmental risk.
Since then, however, the situation has changed fundamentally with the signing in 2010 of a state treaty between Russia and Azerbaijan on the use of the waters of the Samur River, which allows Azerbaijan to divert a far larger volume of its water than previously.
Residents attribute the sinking of the water table to that drop in the flow of the river. Union of Hydrogeologists of Russia Chairman Yury Bogomolov confirmed in January 2014 that the water table in the Samur Valley had already sunk to below sea level which, he said, in itself poses an ecological threat.
For reasons that have not been spelled out, implementation of the project began only in late 2013 -- possibly in light of the planned celebration in September 2015 of the 2,000th anniversary of the founding of Derbent. Up to 2,000 Samur Valley residents immediately mobilized in a bid to prevent the drilling; the authorities initially tried to persuade them to desist, then deployed police to break up the protests.
Following hearings in the Republic of Daghestan parliament in January 2014 and a session of the republic's Public Chamber one month later, it was agreed to suspend work on drilling the artesian wells to allow for a new assessment by federal hydrogeologists of the anticipated ecological impact. It was also agreed that the Daghestani government should formally raise with the Federal Agency for Water Resources the possibility of amending the 2010 interstate agreement with Azerbaijan on the use of water from the Samur River and call for an analogous bilateral agreement on use of groundwater from the Samur basin. It is not clear, however, whether any such request was ever made.
In the course of those public discussions in early 2014, various alternative solutions to the problem of supplying Derbent with drinking water were put forward. The easiest and most cost-effective, the website Onkavkaz.com claimed in July 2016, was to expedite reconstruction of the 90-kilometer Samur-Derbent canal, from which Azerbaijani currently syphons off drinking water. Some 900 million rubles ($15 million) was reportedly spent in 2013-14 on repairs to that waterway.
According to ecologist and Public Chamber member Sergei Simak, the Union of Hydrogeologists of Russia suggested building three to five small reservoirs at the headwaters of the Samur River to supply Derbent.
A third variant, proposed by Musafendi Velimuradov, who in 2014 was Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov's personal plenipotentiary for southern Daghestan and has recently been fired as agriculture minister, was to draw on water from the Shurdere reservoir then under construction further north.
The Daghestani authorities nonetheless remain committed to the original scheme and continue both to downplay the possible negative ecological impact and to insist that the construction was formally approved by the relevant agencies responsible for the environment. Daghestani Economy and Territorial Development Minister Rayuddin Yusufov said it had been approved by specialists from both Moscow State University and Russia's federal environmental-protection agency.
In April, however, Putin's special representative for environmental and transport issues, Sergei Ivanov, called for a new evaluation of the possible ecological consequences before work resumed.
But as hydrologist Artur Alibekov explained in detail to the website Kavpolit.com, the question of obtaining an additional assessment of the ecological impact of the project is complicated in light of the legal requirement that such a formal assessment be given prior to the start of construction. At the same time, he noted that Russian legislation is based on the presumption that a potential ecological threat exists and it is incumbent on the initiator of a given project to prove otherwise.
Alibekov said he had not seen a single convincing scientific study concluding that the project will not cause any harm to the Samur ecosystem. At the same time, he admitted that there is no information in the public domain that would clarify whether or not there is an impermeable stratum of rock separating the groundwater from the artesian water.
Who Needs Water?
Meanwhile, it remains unclear precisely how much water Derbent really needs or how much the planned 200 or so artesian wells will supply. In March 2014, the independent daily Chernovik reported that the town was receiving just 17,000 cubic meters of drinking water per day, of which 5,000 cubic meters came from the Kaytag springs to the northwest and 12,000 cubic meters from springs in the Samur Valley.
Derbent Mayor Malik Bagliyev told Chernovik in July 2016 that the town needed only a further 6,000 cubic meters per day. But the wells and water main from the Samur forest are predicated on a volume of 60,000 or even 70,000 cubic meters.
That discrepancy has given rise to speculation that the larger volume of water is intended not just for Derbent but for the resort town of Izberbash further north up the Caspian coast. Izberbash was recently without drinking water for four days due to the seasonal influx of tourists, Chernovik reported on July 24.
It is, moreover, not just the ecological impact of the Samur project that has given rise to widespread concern. The republic's leadership has been accused of alienating the population of the villages on the edge of the Samur forest by dismissing their concerns from the outset as unfounded and politically motivated. At the time of the initial protests in late 2013, some local elders say police and local officials threatened them with violence.
One of the senior government officials who traveled to the district from Makhachkala in December in a renewed attempt to talk the local residents into abandoning their protests told them that their long-standing demands for repairs to highways and construction of a school would be met only if they stopped opposing the project.
And some observers have raised questions about the standard of the work that has been carried out thus far. A group including public activists, FLNKA members, and State Duma Deputy Mamed Abasov visited the construction site in January 2014 and discovered that the pipes that had been delivered to transport water from the artesian wells to Derbent were made of black rubber and were totally unsuited for piping drinking water. They had reportedly originally been purchased in 2008 for the reconstruction of Derbent's sewage system.
Republic of Daghestan head Abdulatipov has responded to Putin's stated intention of looking into the situation by reiterating that the project posed no threat to the liana forest. He also declared that the project had been mothballed for the past two years, a claim that is at odds with reports that work resumed briefly in July and December 2016 and again last month.
Abdulatipov might already be in Putin's doghouse as a result of the Daghestani government's failure to complete the preparations for Derbent's 2,000th anniversary on time and indications of possible fraud in elections to the State Duma elections in September 2016.
Whether Putin will adduce Abdulatipov's mishandling of the Samur hydrological project to remove him as republic head before his term in office expires in September 2018 is questionable, however, in light of the more urgent requirement to maintain domestic political stability in the run-up to the presidential election in March.