ISSN 2330-717X

Global Warming, Drought Drying Up Siberian Rivers, Cutting Off Far North – OpEd


Global warming combined with the most serious drought in more than 30 years has led both to massive forest fires throughout Russia east of the Urals and  to an abnormal drop in the water levels of major rivers, putting a halt to most river traffic and thus leaving many in the far north without the supplies they will need for the coming winter.


The hardest hit of the rivers is the Lena, 77 percent of whose route crosses through the rapidly melting permafrost; and the hardest hit of the regions are the northernmost portions of the Sakha Republic, many of which are beyond any rail or highway and depend on the river (

In Yakutsk, the republic capital, the water level of the Lena has fallen two and a half meters, leaving many vessels stranded in the mud and killing off the fish on which residents depend.  As a result, Russian experts say, villages and towns will have to be supplied by air or be put at risk of depopulation.

The role of rivers in Siberia and the Russian Far East is not as great now as it was at the time that the region was opened by Russian explorers.  But it is far greater than many might think because there are almost no highways or railroads once one goes 200 to 300 kilometers north of the Mongolian and Chinese borders.

People in the region thus have continued to depend on the river fleet, once mighty in Soviet times but now reduced to a shadow of its former self.  Given global warming and the danger of more draughts, portions of it will go bankrupt this year or next unless there is a major infusion of funds from Moscow, something that seems unlikely.

But if the river fleet dies, it is likely that almost all of those who moved into the region in Soviet and post-Soviet times will leave and the remaining population of indigenous peoples will be forced to return to a life of subsistence.  If that occurs, a large part of what is shown as Russia on the map won’t be Russian at all. 


Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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