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International Relations

China has its eyes on water in Russian lake

Plan could devastate ecosystem but earn Russia some cold, hard yuan

IRKUTSK, Russia -- A Chinese proposal to pump water from Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and carry it across two borders to help alleviate water shortages seems to be a real problem solver.

The Russian lake holds roughly 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater, which would be carried to northwestern China and Mongolia, helping agriculture as well as thirsty people and industries along the way.

Lake Baikal in its frozen winter state

For Russia, selling this water could strengthen the country's economic presence in China and Mongolia.

According to the Global Times, an affiliate of the Communist Party-run People's Daily, authorities in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in northwestern China, are now considering a 1,000km pipeline that would transport the water.

But the lake itself appears to be in trouble.

Draining much of what is also known as "the Pearl of Siberia" would inevitably further damage the treasured ecosystems in and around the lake.

Already, increasing throngs of Chinese tourists visiting Lake Baikal -- and how they treat the environment -- has become a major issue.

A 28-year-old who runs a tourist business near the lake said that given the way China has destroyed its own environment, the country's authorities are unlikely to heed the welfare of the Greater Lake Baikal region.

Conservation groups in Russia and elsewhere have been saying the lake's water level has been receding and that it is becoming contaminated.

Already, these alarm bells have the Russian government thinking it might have to abort a plan to turn the lake into an international resort.

In an interview with The Nikkei, senior officials of the Irkutsk regional government acknowledged that local Chinese authorities have sounded them out on the plan.

Russia has high expectations for Chinese cash; Alexander Tkachev, Russia's minister of agriculture, last year proposed a plan to deliver water from Siberia's Altai Republic to China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

But if the Lake Baikal plan goes through, it could spark massive protests among nearby residents.

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