Why Is The World’s Largest Freshwater Lake Drying Out?

In the Siberian area of Russia, a crisis is underway and locals are frightened over a recent alarm.

On Tuesday, the Russian government warned that water volume of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, has reduced to its lowest level seen in 60 years. Officials blame drying out of the lake on hydroelectric power companies, while skeptics and environmental groups like Greenpeace believe man-made climate change is the culprit.

Phys.org provided coverage on the dire situation Russia is facing over water shortages from Lake Baikal. Although the world’s biggest freshwater alake dwarfs other bodies of water globally, it is facing a crisis that many locals who depend on it for sustenance feared.

The regional ministry issued a high alert to dependent villages of Baikal, primarily in the Buryatia region, of its declining levels. Russian officials say water levels in the vast lake are only three inches above the minimum threshold of 456 meters (or 1496 feet) above sea level. The state of emergency comes on the heels of Pope Francis’ message to the world about climate change. Days ago, the Pope warned that environmental destruction is a sin. Baikal, one of Russia’s famous landmarks for its pristine waters and abundant reserves, is the subject of legal ramblings. Apparently, locals and big industry are gridlocked on the use of the natural resource of fresh water that serves many entities.

[January 21, 2015 at 12:05AM] Russia sounds the alarm as water levels in Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshw… http://t.co/yLgM5KucHn — Test (@undead___dev) January 20, 2015

On the one hand, villagers situated along Baikal’s expanse depend on it for nourishing its human and animal inhabitants. However, corporations and industries have a different focus sets, primarily that of profit. Hydroelectric power plant owners and operators depend on low levels of the world’s largest lake. If the freshwater lake rises too high, the pumps are rendered useless. Keeping the water levels low allows for parceling of reserves based on tax hikes and demand, thus the impasse.

Mediators, namely environmentalists are stepping in and demanding that Russian officials conduct studies that may reveal the best way to manage the distribution of freshwater reserves. Ivan Blokov, a program director and spokesperson for Greenpeace weighed in on the consequences of the world’s largest lake drying out.

“The problem looks very serious at first glance but as far as we know there have been no thorough studies as of yet. This can be done by any serious scientific institution. This can be done by domestic scientists.

“Perhaps, the probability of catastrophic consequences of the reduction of water levels and the destruction of the lake is not very high. A sharp change in water levels in Lake Baikal happened several decades ago. Its implications lingered for several decades and some remain visible until now.”

Next week, a special meeting is being convened over the growing water shortage crisis. Then, government officials in Russia will decide if Baikal should be allowed to dry up further in order to feed the hydroelectric plants. The threat lingers about the plants closing up shop, which will leave the region dry. Consequently, fishing industries will be forced to close or relocate.

“The current reduction of water levels will definitely have negative implications and the only question is their degree,” added Blokov.

Fact about the world’s largest lake: “Lake Baikal is 636 kilometers long (395 miles). It is the deepest lake in the world and by volume holds the largest amount of fresh water.”

In the United States, water managers are experiencing similar challenges as that seen in Russia. Like Lake Baikal, Lakes Mead and Powell, freshwater bodies that supply water to several upper and lower basin states, are drying out.

For the last 20 years, both lakes have seen dramatic falls in water levels for two primary reasons: a 15-year drought and climate change, largely thought to be induced by human overuse. Experts in water reclamation say that if new legislation is not enacted to subsidize underground drilling to release groundwater supplies and restrictions are put in place on over consumption, results could be catastrophic. Hopefully, the government and private sectors arrive at amicable plans soon. Otherwise, the world’s largest freshwater lake could meet the same fate as Aral seen in the picture below.

[Image via: Wikimedia Commons]