To the rescue of River Volga

The Volga is Europe’s longest river and the principal waterway of western Russia. It rises in the Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow and flows 3,530 km southeastward to empty into the Caspian Sea. It is used for power production, irrigation, flood control, and transportation. Out of the twenty largest Russian cities, eleven, including the capital Moscow, are situated in the Volga's drainage basin. Some of the largest reservoirs in the world can be found along the Volga.

What are the main environmental concerns for the river?

  • According to an assessment of the World Bank, some of Volga tributaries are characterized as ‘very polluted’, while some are even ‘extremely polluted’.
  • In mid-2009, environmental activists announced that risks of a grave environmental problem arising in the Saratov region were high, as hazardous reagents, used to clear ice from streets, were likely to end up dumped in the water.
  • 8 enormous water reservoirs, created to facilitate the work of hydroelectric power plants along Volga, turned it into a sequence of still water lakes, permanently altering its course.
  • At present tons of chemicals are contained in the water, most of which are highly toxic.
  • Heightened levels of pollution are negatively influencing the inhabitants of the river: data collected in 2007 shows that 90% of fish residing there were mutant, while in 2008 the number increased to 100% for some kinds of fish.
  • Repeated instances of oil spills in the river have led to further deterioration of the river environment. In 2008, a giant 1 kilometer-long oil stain was detected in the Chernoyarsk region of Astrahanska Oblast, its weight over 32 kg. In July 2009, 2 tons of fuel oil were spilled as a result of a tanker wreck in Samara Oblast, forming a 10 kilometre oil stain on the water’s surface.

What have been the steps UNEP has taken to tackle the issues in the region?

UNEP has promoted and supported projects of the Russian Ministry for Natural Resources and the State Duma on aspects of environmentally sound management of the Volga river basin.

Work was undertaken within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Russian state Duma and UNEP, on assessment of climate change impacts on the Volga River basin resources, signed in May 2008 for a period of six months. The work under this agreement was carried out with the following key objectives: assessment of climate change impacts on the state of water resources in the Volga river basin, including vulnerability to flooding and water logging; recommendations to decision-makers and legislative bodies, including the State Duma, on relevant amendments to current normative and legislative acts and adaptation measures. UNEP provided support and contributed expert services through consultants.

A project called ‘Integrated Water Resources Management for Sustainable Freshwater Supply and Conservation’ was implemented in 2009-2010. The main outputs are:

  • Assessments of the current state of water resources and capacity necessary for the implementation of the “Updated water policy and strategy of the United Nations Environment Programme for the period 2007-2012 with respect to freshwater” in Russia;
  • Proposals on use of methodology for a programme-targeted approach to water sector management in the region, and schemes of scientific- informational support for making decisions in water sector complex of the near Caspian region of Russia;
  • Recommendations on improvement of water sector activity in the near Caspian region of Russia.