By Paul Goble
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 (siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/worlds-largest-permafrost-river-dries-to-a-record-low/).
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.