World’s deepest lake in peril, scientists warn
World’s deepest lake in peril, scientists warn
Holding one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, Baikal in Russia’s Siberia is a natural wonder of “exceptional value to evolutionary science” meriting its listing as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Baikal’s high biodiversity includes over 3,600 plant and animal species, most of which are endemic to the lake.
Over the past several years, however, the lake, a major international tourist attraction, has been crippled by a series of detrimental phenomena, some of which remain a mystery to scientists.
They include the disappearance of the omul fish, rapid growth of putrid algae and the death of endemic species of sponges across its vast 3.2 million-hectare (7.9 million-acre) area.
Starting in October, the government introduced a ban on all commercial fishing of omul, a species of the salmon family only found in Baikal, fearing “irreversible consequences for its population,” the Russian fisheries agency told AFP.
“The total biomass of omul in Baikal has more than halved since 15 years ago” from 25 million tons to just 10 million, the agency said.
Local fishery biologist Anatoly Mamontov said the decrease is likely caused by uncontrollable fish poaching, with extra pressure coming from the climate.
“Baikal water stock is tied to climate,” he said. “Now there is a drought, rivers grow shallow, there are less nutrients. Baikal’s surface heats up and omul does not like warm water.”
UNESCO last month “noted with concern that the ecosystem of the lake is reported to be under significant stress” and a decrease in fish stocks is just one observable effect.
The Baikal omul, a well-known specialty, was for centuries the main local source of food, eaten salted or smoked, and especially important given the region has no farming.
Another peril to the lake’s ecosystem is the explosion of algal blooms unnatural to Baikal with thick mats of rotting Spirogyra algae blanketing pristine sandy beaches, which some scientists say indicates that the lake can no longer absorb human pollution without consequence.
“I am 150 percent sure that the reason is the wastewater runoff” from towns without proper sewage treatment, particularly of phosphate-containing detergents, said Oleg Timoshkin, biologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Limnological Institute in Irkutsk.
Fifteen years ago, some of the lake’s picturesque villages had only two hours of electricity a day, but now improved power access means that “every babushka rents out rooms and has a washing machine,” he said.
Indeed the lake, which is 1,700 meters (5,580 feet) deep, and its tourism now provide a livelihood for many residents to replace fishing.
Foreign visitors often spend time at Baikal while doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and in recent years more Chinese have been coming as Russia eased visa requirements.
Russians love the area, too, for its hiking trails, camping and spectacular scenery.
Timoshkin has traveled the length of Baikal testing for Spirogyra prevalence and said that in three critical zones near populated areas “the bottom does not look like Baikal anymore” and algae is pushing out oxygen-loving molluscs and crustaceans.
Near the town of Listvyanka, the tourist hub closest to regional center Irkutsk, “there used to be underwater forests of sponges 15 years ago, now they are all dead,” Timoshkin said.
Last year, Timoshkin tested 170 types of sponges throughout Baikal’s coast, and “only 11 percent looked healthy,” he said. “When you take a dead sponge to the surface it smells like a corpse.”
If dumping polluted water into the lake doesn’t stop, “shallow coastal zones will change severely,” he said, calling for a ban on phosphate-containing substances in the region and building “the best sewage treatment plants in Russia.”
President Vladimir Putin in August complained of “extremely high pollution” while visiting Lake Baikal, calling its preservation a “government priority.”
A special 1999 law in Russia spells out protection measures for Lake Baikal. The government is also putting 26 billion into a cleanup program, which started in 2012, to fund treatment facilities, though local experts say much of the money gets wasted.
In one town, Babushkin, on Baikal’s shore, millions of dollars were spent on a brand new treatment plant but bacteria meant to purify the water fail to work in the Siberian winter, local media said.
“As usual, the strictness of our laws is compensated by the fact that following them is optional,” said Buryatia-based ecologist Sergei Shapkhayev. “Money is being allocated but it gets stolen.”
Science funding has also grown thin at a time when studying Baikal is most vital, both Timoshkin and Mamontov said. “How can you cut funding during a crisis?” Timoshkin asked.
“That’s like firing epidemiologists during a smallpox outbreak.”
37% of Arab women have experienced violence, UN workshop hears
- A UN workshop in Beirut has been getting to grips with a critical issue for the Arab region
- Of ESCWA’s 22 member states, countries that are considered to have adequate laws in place include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon
BEIRUT: Arab women and their protection took center stage at a regional workshop held by the UN in Beirut this week.
Held on Tuesday and Wednesday at the United Nations House in the Lebanese capital, the workshop to support women in the Arab region was organized by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the Arab League.
The aim was to address violence against women and highlight the role of international and regional bodies specializing in women’s issues, as well as their impact on the development of policies, strategies, national laws and standard services to address the issue.
“Violence against women is one of our key pillars, and we chose the topic based on the request from our Arab member states,” said Mehrinaz El-Awady, director at the ESCWA Center for Women. “Most of our work is related to eliminating violence. We do studies and a lot of capacity-building on certain topics.”
The center conducted a number of studies on the topic this year, adding to its seven years of cumulative work on the issue. The studies are complemented by workshops to fill the knowledge gap.
“There are a lot of initiatives done by national women’s machineries, which are the government offices, departments, commissions or ministries that provide leadership and support to government efforts to achieve greater equality between women and men, but they are not all aligned with international institutions, policy and gender equality in general,” El-Awady said. “There are specific requirements for legislation on violence against women, and we have six Arab countries that have done this legislation, yet we need more alignment on these legislations, to have a broader definition on violence against women.”
She spoke of the potential in Arab countries to eliminate violence, which the UN wishes to build on. “We’re introducing international instruments on violence against women and key pillars that should be legislation on the topic,” El-Awady said.
“It should cover prevention, protection, prosecution and rehabilitation, and we’re picking some of the examples of countries that have done legislation, allowing them to present the newly developed laws so other countries that haven’t had a law would be encouraged to follow the same path.”
Of ESCWA’s 22 member states, countries that are considered to have adequate laws in place include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. In 2013, Saudi Arabia passed legislation to protect women, children and domestic workers against domestic abuse. It was followed earlier this year by an anti-harassment law.
Other countries are said to deal with violence against women under the penal code, which ESCWA is advocating against. “When you have violence against women in a penal code, it loses the privacy,” she added. “It’s not violence from an intimate partner.”
According to UN Women, one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once, mostly by an intimate partner. In some countries, that figure is as high as 70 per cent. Globally, almost four in every 10 female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners.
Violence against women has risen in the past few years in the region, which, according to the World Bank, has the lowest number of laws protecting women from domestic violence in the world. UN Women estimates 37 per cent of Arab women have experienced violence, with indicators that the percentage might be higher.
“The region has had a prevalence of violence against women, and it’s one of the things we’re trying to support countries (in),” El-Awady said.
“We hope Arab member states are more sensitive to the requirement of legislation on violence against women and start the consideration of having a protection order with the legislation to complement it. There’s a momentum and Arab countries are now more alert — it’s a phenomenon that requires attention from them.”
Women and girls make up 70 per cent of all known human-trafficking victims. Adult women constitute 50 percent of the total number of trafficked people, while two in three child victims of human trafficking are young girls.
Rapists are often shown leniency or even acquitted in the Arab region if they marry their victims. In Morocco, Article 475 of the penal code, which allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they marry their victims, was repealed in 2014 following the suicide of a rape victim who was forced to marry her rapist. Today, 700 million women have been married under the age of 18, and 14 percent of Arab girls marry under the age of 18.
“Violence against women has multiple consequences, at the individual level, within the family, community and wider society,” said Manal Benkirane, regional program specialist at UN Women’s Regional Office for Arab States. “It can lead to fatal outcomes and have a significant burden on the economy. Despite the ongoing efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls in the region, its prevalence and social acceptance remain high.”
She stressed the importance of having enabling legislative frameworks to change the social norms and acceptance of violence, and to ensure women’s access to services that meet their needs. “Otherwise, women in the region end up being violated twice, first when they are subjected to assault, and second when they are denied their right to care and support,” she said. “This workshop offers the space for participating countries to share their experiences, achievements but also challenges they faced in addressing violence in the region.”
More than six in every 10 women survivors of violence refrain from asking for support or protection. The remaining ones who speak up turn to family and friends.
Globally, the total direct and indirect costs of violence against women for countries are estimated to be as high as 1 to 2 percent of their gross national product, which amounts to millions of dollars worldwide.
“Violence against women (has) become a critical issue in the Arab region,” said Shaza Abdellateef, head of women in the women, family and childhood department at the Arab League’s social affairs sector.
“This is especially pronounced under the recent circumstances that some Arab countries suffer from, with the spread of armed conflicts, refugees and the increase of violence against women, including domestic violence. It is one of the most important issues in the Arab region today.”