Soviet river diversion project may be worth reviving after improvements -expert

With certain improvements, a Soviet-time project to reroute Siberian rivers may be worth reviving to solve drinking water shortages in Russia’s Urals and countries of Central Asia, a leading Russian hydrology expert said.

Professor Nikolai Koronkevich of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences said the project to supply over 30 cubic km of water from Siberian rivers to Central Asia, abandoned 25 years ago, may be worth reanimating in a “curtailed variant.”

“The project should be partially revived in the following way: we should supply water via a pipeline in small amounts and, first of all, to make up for the drinking water demand. It would solve the problem of drinking water shortages in Kurgan, Chelyabinsk and Orenburg regions [in the Urals], where surface waters are extremely polluted and the situation is critical,” the scientist said.

Koronkevich said the project may also help to improve health situation in Central Asia, where many people suffer kidney problems because of drinking highly mineralized drinking water. The region gets potable water mainly from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and their tributaries, which acquire mineralization level of three grams per liter after being used to irrigate cotton fields. The figure is about five times above safe levels.

“It is also possible to build a pipeline to Central Asia to alleviate the pressing public health problem there,” Koronkevich said. “The costs of such a project won’t be exorbitant.”

The Soviet-era project was abandoned due to environmental concerns and high costs, estimated from $300 million to $1 billion.

However, the project may be cost-efficient if a pipeline with a capacity of two to four cubic km of water is built, the Russian scientist said.

According to the Soviet-era plan, first mooted about 40 years ago, the Ob, the Irtysh and the Yenisei are to be diverted away from the Arctic southward to irrigate rice and cotton fields in drought-ridden Central Asian republics. But it was shelved after two decades of debate, yielding to strong public opposition.

In late 2002, then Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov suggested reviving the ambitious project. He said a canal linking Khanty Mansiisk, in Western Siberia, to Central Asia would enable Russia to sell 6-7% of the Ob River’s water to agricultural and industrial producers in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, possibly, Turkmenistan.

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