Every Chinese person knows about one place in Siberia – Lake Baikal. It is not necessarily famous for its unique biodiversity or for being the deepest lake in the world. Every winter, radio broadcasts warn Chinese listeners about “cold air masses that are moving in from the Lake Baikal”. It’s also the subject of a popular folk song.
Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s freshwater resources and affects the regional climate of North Asia and the Arctic Basin. The lake is home to 2,500 aquatic species and local communities in Mongolia and Russia revere the lake as the “Sacred Sea”.
Chinese people are beginning to value Lake Baikal and are increasingly coming as tourists to see it. Some visitors are even investing in the risky tourism business around the lake. Recently the China-based Well of the World company proposed pouring Baikal water into bottles to quench Chinese thirst. But this nature-friendly relationship could be severely damaged as the China Export-Import Bank (China EXIM Bank) has pledged a soft loan to Mongolia for a project that may tip the fragile ecological balance of the ancient lake.
Finally, there is no mechanism for consultation with stakeholders living along the Silk Road. Without this, Chinese investors lack information on actual environmental and social risks. Or they get it too late, as in this case when supervising agencies ordered Gezhouba to stop construction.
China’s National Development and Reform Commission suspended the project over concerns about transboundary impacts of the dam project, according to sources within the company and the Mongolian foreign ministry. China EXIM Bank has also asked their Mongolian counterparts to conduct due diligence on Egiin Gol. Meanwhile the project is in limbo.
Most likely, Chinese agencies pursuing energy cooperation with Mongolia had not assessed the environmental effects of various investment options or the associated trans-boundary water issues. Then, all of a sudden this spring, the EXIM Bank received a letter from the people of Russia’s Kabansk District in the Selenge River Delta and learned that the project it was supporting could harm Lake Baikal, which is the source of cold winter air in China.
An alternative way forward was proposed by the 64,000 people who signed a petition last year asking Mongolia, Russia and China to support solar and wind instead of hydropower and coal. China, with its ambitions to develop a large-scale renewable industry, should listen to these voices.