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Russia's Catastrophic Environmental Crisis

By Theodora Filis

During the next decade, Russia will be unable to deal effectively with the formidable environmental challenges posed by decades of Soviet and post-Soviet environmental mismanagement and recurring economic crises. 

Although the prolonged contraction in economic activity has resulted in significant drops in most pollution categories, substantial environmental improvement will depend on an array of socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural changes--facilitated by the international engagement that will only begin to develop sporadically and close to the end of our 10-year time frame at the earliest. Major progress is decades away.

Among Russia's most serious environmental problems:
  • Water pollution is the most serious concern. Less than half of Russia's population has access to safe drinking water. While water pollution from industrial sources has diminished because of the decline in manufacturing, municipal wastes increasingly threaten key water supply sources, and nuclear contamination could seep into key water sources as well. The head of Russia's environmental protection committee estimates that the cost of raising the quality of Russia's entire drinking water supply to official standards could be as high as $200 billion.
  • Hazardous waste disposal problems are extensive and growing. Russian officials estimate that about 200 metric tons of the most highly toxic and hazardous wastes are dumped illegally each year in locations that lack effective environmental or public health protections or oversight.
  • Nuclear waste and chemical munitions contamination are so extensive and costly to reverse remediation efforts are likely to continue to be limited largely to merely fencing off affected areas.
Environmental problems are harming both the health of Russia's citizens and the economy:
  • US, Russian, and World Bank studies link an increase in respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses and developmental problems among children in several Russian cities in part to environmental factors. A 1996 joint US-Russian government study found that one-quarter of kindergarten pupils in one city had lead concentrations above the threshold at which intelligence is impaired, while a US government study noted a rise in the incidence of waterborne diseases and environmentally related birth defects. A Russian government report cited air pollution as a contributing factor to 17 percent of childhood and 10 percent of adult illnesses.
Russia's environmental problems also pose substantial threats to other regions and are likely to continue to do so during the next decade:
  • Russia is a polluter of adjacent seas, dumping industrial and municipal wastes, chemical munitions, and, until the mid-1990s, solid and liquid radioactive wastes.
  • It is likely to continue to be a major producer and exporter of illicit ozone-depleting substances because of widespread black-market activity and also will remain a major emitter of carbon dioxide.

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