Moscow actively considering diverting Siberian river water for profit
September 21, 2010, Paul Goble
Stimulated by a World Bank projection that the sale of water will bring more than a trillion US dollars in annual profit worldwide a decade from now to those involved in that industry, Moscow is considering developing plans to revive the diversion of Siberian river water to southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Central Asia and possibly China.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet plans to divert Siberian river waters to Central Asia were killed by Russian nationalists who saw this gigantist project as a threat to the Russian land. Under Vladimir Putin, renewed plans to do so were killed by Russian ecologists who warned of its negative consequences to the environment more generally.
But now as water shortages spread outward from Central Asia, the idea is attracting attention again and appears to be gaining traction because of the enormous profits that such a scheme might bring to its organizers, according to an analysis of the most recent moves by Aleksandr Bakhtutov.
Earlier this year, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed resuscitating the river diversion plans that had been vetoed in 1986 and 2002, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that he was prepared to reconsider “certain former ideas” which were rejected at the time.
Medvedev’s comments have had an impact on discussions about Russia’s water strategy, Bakhtutov says, most significantly leading those preparing it to argue that Moscow must make plans not just out to 2020 as originally required but to 2030 or even 2050. And in that time frame, diverting some of the flow of the Siberian rivers to the south makes sense.
In addition to the humanitarian and security aspects of this issue, Bakhtutov continues, Moscow has been struck by World Bank projections that “the annual profit of private organizations involved in the administration of water resources can achieve by 2020 about a trillion dollars a year.”
“In this sense,” the analyst argues, “the project of diverting part of the flow of Siberian river can represent a serious interest for foreign and Russian businessmen who could receive their share of this market.” In short, what political will could not achieve in the past, the profit motive may in the future.
Kamil Kanteyev, a specialist on water use, says that officials in Penza oblast “completely support the initiative of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev about the diversion of part of the flow of the Siberian rivers to the southern regions of Russia and Kazakhstan where a water deficit has taken shape.” Such a project “will not represent any harm” to Siberia, he said.
According to Kanteyev, Bakhtutov says, past plans to divert Siberian river water were killed by people who knew little about the water problems of the country but used this issue for their own political purposes. Indeed, he says, they reduced the whole idea to a cliché rather than considering it rationally and scientifically.
Now that the private sector is involved as well, Kanteyev continues, there is a growing recognition that “without water resources, the southern regions of Russia and the countries of Central Asia do not have any perspectives for development. They will simply dry up altogether. Thus, life itself makes the realization of this project a necessity.”
In the near future, Kanteyev sys, “water will become more expensive than oil.” That is because there are alternative to oil but there are no alternatives to water. Russia is “water rich” and thus can “rationally use its national wealth” to promote its interests and its profits. And it should be prepared to do so.
Not only can Moscow rely on assistance from the private sector, but the situation in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is so dire that the governments of those Central Asian states as well as that of Kazakhstan can be counted on to provide some of the funding for river diversion, thus lowering the costs of the project to Russia itself.
Once again, “the diversion that would not die” has resurfaced. And despite the arguments of Kanteyev, the opponents of this enormous and enormously expensive project have not disappeared. But they now face a new obstacle to blocking it: the profits those behind it expect to make from a privatized diversion effort.