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In 1999 the Organisation for Economic Co­operation & Development (OECD) concluded that despite many new laws being passed since the collapse of the USSR, environmen­tal trends in Russia are still negative. The fact is that care for the environment has long had a low priority among Russia’s rulers.

The Soviet Union’s penchant for massive economy-boosting projects was matched only by its wilful ignorance ofthese projects’ often devastating environmental side effects – think of the draining of the Aral Sea. Mis­takes were seldom admitted and, as the 1986

Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine most fa­mously showed, people were not told when their lives were in danger.

The post-Soviet market economy has scarcely been better for the environment. Many of the most polluting factories have gone bankrupt, yet still the air quality in over 200 cities often exceeds Russian pollution limits, a figure that is likely to worsen. Higher standards of living have put more cars on the roads and substantially increased solid waste generation – there is no management exper­tise or landfill capacity to deal with this. Less than half of Russia’s population has access to safe drinking water. Russia’s nuclear power stations are widely regarded as accidents waiting to happen, especially as money to run and maintain them becomes scarce.

Among many other problems are:

  • Up to 2.7 million people still living in areas of Russia affected by the Chernobyl disaster (mostly in the west around Bryansk ); 400,000 of them are in areas from which it is recognised they should be moved; there are increased rates of cancer and heart problems among these people.
  • At least 120 underground and atmospheric nu­clear tests on the Arctic Novaya Zemlya Islands, and abnormally high cancer rates among the local Nentsy people and their reindeer herds.
  • Desertification of the Kalmyk Steppe areas around the northern Caspian Sea because of overgrazing by sheep.
  • Erosion of fertile black-earth steppe lands be­cause of excessive cultivation.
  • Severe pollution of the Volga by industrial waste, sewage, pesticides and fertilisers; and a chain of hydroelectric dams along the river, blocking fish spawning routes and slowing the current, which encourages fish parasites. (It now takes water 18 months to flow from Ry­binsk to Volgograd, instead of the one month it used to take.)
  • All main rivers, including the Volga, Don, Kama, Kuban and Oka, have 10 to 100 times the per­mitted viral and bacterial levels.
  • Chronic overfishing of the Arctic Barents Sea, pollution of both the Baltic and Black Seas, and the near extermination of life in the Sea of Azov as a result of overfishing, salination and indus­trial pollution.