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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Repairing Russia's Rivers

Air Date: Week of

Reese Erlich reports from Moscow on the plight of Russia's polluted rivers. In an innovative project, American and Russian scientists team up to solve the problem using a combination of Soviet and US technology — and a dose of grassroots organizing.


NUNLEY: Many people had hoped that the end of the Soviet Union would bring environmental reform to a region where for decades huge industries had virtually free license to pollute waterways. But political instability has led instead to even worse dumping. So a group of Russian scientists and political leaders are joining forces with some American business people in an effort to clean up some of Russia's rivers. Reese Erlich reports from Moscow.

ERLICH: Old tires, trash, and machine parts lay all over the banks of the Yauza River, once a scenic Moscow waterway. The river is seriously polluted from industrial waste dumped from nearby factories.

About 100 yards from the river bank, the Uhanov family grows cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes on a small plot of land. Victor Uhanov knows from his own experience that the river is polluted. He works as an electrician at a nearby textile factory that pours hundreds of gallons of waste chemicals into the river every week. Uhanov says he would never irrigate his family's garden plot with the river water.

(Russian with translation)
TRANSLATOR: The river water is very bad, he thinks. They carry water from the swamp that is next to their plot of land. They believe that the water is cleaner there. Because the level of the swamp is higher than the river.

ERLICH: But that belief is wrong. Scientists say the swamp water is just as polluted as the river. Now, however, a group of Russian scientists and Americans have begun an effort to clean up the Yauza and other Russian rivers.

(sound of Dixieland band playing in the Metro)

ERLICH: Vitaly Chelshev is editor in chief of the environmental newspaper, Salvation. Walking in this Moscow Metro station, Chelshev notes that everything American is popular in Russia these days - from music to technology. Playing off the song lyrics, he says Muscovites really do think "you can get anything but love" from the United States.

CHELSHEV: I think that Americans have now good technology for cleaning up programs. They have good testing machines and testing stations for monitoring. It will be very useful for our new situation.

ERLICH: This technology is coming to Russia through a project dubbed "Operation Twinkling Star," or OTS. American engineers will contribute technical expertise in fields such as monitoring river pollution and will later send technology to reduce effluent from factories along the rivers. For their part, the Russians will contribute sophisticated military technology for aerial mapping, which will then be interpreted by US computers and software. Alan Cibuzar, a Minnesota environmental consultant, says the combination should help him and other project organizers get a detailed picture of the river pollution.

CIBUZAR: We'd like to see pipes pouring pollutants. We'd want to see barrels, sizes of barrels and where they are laying. Dump sites and what's in those dump sites. Hopefully this winter we can track organic pollutants and where they are falling on the snow.

ERLICH: The project includes more than sophisticated technology. The Americans also bring a whole new political approach to environmental cleanup in Russia. In a pilot project 150 miles south of Moscow, Operation Twinkling Star emphasizes organizing people at the grassroots rather than imposing change from the top. Eugenia Pastuchova is the Russian director of Operation Twinkling Star.

PASTUCHOVA (Russian with translation): First they collected their opinions and saw if the population wanted the project to work in their district. After this, they would start working. So this project is made on the level of people. And this is the most important.

ERLICH: The whole community will get into the act. Teachers will design lesson plans about river cleanup. Newspapers will run regular articles on its progress. Local residents formed an environmental group to keep up the political pressure.

ERLICH: So far Cibuzar and American companies are donating their time and equipment, But their long-term interests are not purely humanitarian: there's profit to be made later on. Newspaper editor Vitaly Chelshev explains.

CHELSHEV: It is first steps in a great Russian market. It's very good for many American firms and scientists, too, I think.

ERLICH: Back at the Yauza River, the Uhanov family continues to pick their vegetables. Victor Uhanov says he and other residents hope joint American-Russian cooperation will help end the water pollution.

(Russian with translation)
TRANSLATOR: He said some time ago, many years ago, he saw how people swam in the river, washed clothes in it. He saw it in movie and he was surprised there were such times.

ERLICH: If Operation Twinkling Star succeeds, perhaps those times will return once again. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich reporting from Moscow.



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