Nurse and sufferer: how the most famous Russian river lives
Volga Day originated in 2008 to draw public attention to the environmental problems of the river. Once rich in fish, with a powerful calm current, she fed and watered everyone who came to her. And now I am ready to share everything that is rich. Only now her wealth is rapidly declining, and if measures are not taken, the matter may end badly.
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It is not for nothing that the Volga is called mother – in ancient times one of the main trade routes ran along it, caravans of up to 500 ships went along the river. She also watered the settlements along the banks, and fed – the Volga has always been rich in fish. Since then, little has changed, except that merchant ships have replaced tourist liners. But the river itself is no longer the same as in ancient times, and man is to blame for this.
Long gone are the days when the water here was clean – now it just doesn’t get there. For example, petroleum products. Not far from the reservoirs of the Volga basin, half of the oil refineries of Russia settled down. Unfortunately, not all industries can guarantee the absence of accidents and the risk of oil spills. One liter is enough to irremediably pollute 500 thousand liters of water, making it unsuitable not only for drinking, but even for irrigation. If fuel oil gets into the river, it forms an oily film on the surface, preventing the access of oxygen to aquatic inhabitants, which is fraught with their death.
The remains of fertilizers and pesticides flow from the fields into the Volga, which is why the concentration of heavy metals slowly accumulates in the water. Active construction also makes its contribution – in particular, the same industries. In cities on the banks of the Volga, textiles, automobiles, aircraft engines, marine vessels are produced, chemical and metallurgical production is developed. As a result, in addition to oil products, cadmium, copper, zinc, phenols, nitrogen compounds, etc. are dumped into the river. According to statistics, every year 6 km3 of sewage is diluted with water in the river, treatment facilities cope with only a tenth.
A succession of ships sailing along the Volga dilute this entire cocktail with fuel waste and waste products. But there are also sunken ships, of which more than 3 thousand are registered at the bottom of the river. Gradually collapsing, they release fuel, lubricants and other toxic substances, which gradually rise closer to the surface, spreading wider and wider along the way.
Metamorphoses and mutations
Back in the 1930s, the Volga began to be used as a source of not only water, but also affordable electricity. As a result, the river imperceptibly turned into a system of reservoirs with numerous hydroelectric power stations. The Volga-Kama cascade includes more than a dozen hydroelectric power plants, which produce about 4% of the country’s energy. It would seem that this is a renewable energy source that does not require additional resources like coal and does not pollute the atmosphere with emissions. However, it can not be called environmentally friendly, alas.
The once powerful current of the river slowed down, the water began to warm up much more intensively. Where before the fish could freely pass, insurmountable obstacles arose. Alluvial layers and minerals, which the river carried in tons to the lower reaches, began to accumulate along its entire length, sinking to the bottom. There was a problem of shallowing and waterlogging.
The fish began to die out, the balance of the inhabitants of the underwater world was disturbed. Now hydrologists are trying to deal with the situation: they are laying bypass channels to restore the migration routes of fish, they are conducting idle water discharges to ensure the level necessary for their spawning. However, the fish are reluctant to go along artificial “roads”, and so far it has not been possible to restore the previous depth and speed of the river by such measures.
In the warmed water, the chemical composition of which has noticeably changed, algae began to grow rapidly. The blue-green mass, densely covering the surface, prevents sunlight, which previously easily penetrated to the depths. There is also less oxygen in the water. The latter problem is exacerbated by the fact that, decomposing, algae become food for bacteria that actively absorb oxygen. Due to its lack, fish die.
But algae release toxic substances during decomposition in excess – because of them, nitrogenous and phosphorus compounds appear in the water, which are detrimental to other inhabitants of the Volga. Cyanotoxins are especially harmful to living beings. Fish hastily leave the places where cyanobacteria synthesize these toxic substances. Animals unfortunate enough to get drunk in an infested area risk serious poisoning. And it is better for people not to swim in such places.
It makes no sense to mechanically remove blue-green algae from the river – in the next couple of days they will grow again. In order to reduce the amount of harmful flora, you must first reduce the amount of waste that enters the river. The scientists are also considering replacing blue-green algae with safe chlorella, which river fish can eat without harm to their health.
In the meantime, toxic plants emit about 300 organic substances that poison everything else. The only species that can feed on them is the silver carp, but it is not enough to cope with the algae. Others gradually mutate – fishermen now and then catch fish devoid of scales, eyes or any organs. Researchers note with alarm that the number of mutations has reached a frightening figure of 90%, reaching the genetic level.
Despite the sad changes, places with untouched nature have been preserved along the banks of the Volga. Protected areas allow saving unique Red Data Book species and ecosystems from destruction.
In the river delta there are territories of the Astrakhan Reserve, where numerous waterfowl gather. Here you can meet pink and curly pelicans, black storks, flamingos, white-tailed eagles and many others – scientists counted 307 species. A rare relic Russian muskrat inhabits the Obzhorovsky section of the reserve, and in July-August, fields of pale pink Caspian lotuses, another red book relic, grow above the water.
The largest bend of the Volga, Samarskaya Luka, became the territory of the first Russian integrated biosphere reserve – the Middle Volga. Here, too, many birds found shelter, as well as bats from the Red Book and rare plants. The Zhiguli Mountains, the Samarskaya Luka, the Shalyga and Seredysh Islands are under protection.
Khvalynsky National Park is located in the Saratov region, where the Volga reaches its greatest depth. Its borders also include the Khvalyn Mountains, the highest in the Volga Upland. This region is rich in springs – there are about 500 of them, 25 have ecological passports and are under constant supervision of researchers.
The lands of the Darwin Reserve are spread out on a large peninsula on the northwestern shore of the Rybinsk Reservoir. It was after its construction that a protected area was created here to study how the artificial reservoir affects the ecosystem. Thus, 10% of the water area of the reservoir became protected, where the fish feel completely safe, maintaining the population size. Birds also appreciated this place: osprey, eagle owl, black-throated diver and other Red Book species nest here. Since 2002, the Darwin Reserve has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The Sengileevskiye Gory National Park and the Volga-Kama Reserve are also located near the Kuibyshevsky reservoir. The Volga-Kamsky Nature Reserve especially appreciated the rare white-tailed eagle, whose nesting density here is the highest in Europe. In addition, the local forest is the oldest in Eastern Europe. On the territory of the park there is a paleontological reserve rich in prehistoric fossils: ammonites and belemnites. Found here and fragments of the skeletons of pliosaurs.
As long as people recognize their mistakes and make efforts to correct them, disaster can be avoided. Protected lands help to restore the lost balance of the ecosystem and preserve endangered plants and animals, while scientists develop ways to solve environmental problems. Perhaps we will yet have a chance to see how the Volga will return the purity of its waters and the wealth wasted over the centuries.
- The length of the Volga is 3694 km. It is the deepest river in Europe, its basin feeds over a thousand rivers, and the catchment area is 1.4 million km2. The maximum width is 40 km.
- According to hydrologists, the river takes 60% of its water from melted snow. 30% comes into it from groundwater, 10% – with rain.
- It was on the Volga that the profession “burlak” appeared. During the famine period between Maslenitsa and Easter, the opportunity to be hired by the burlatskaya artel saved many peasants from starvation. During the season, up to 600,000 barge haulers could pull barges along the river.
- The river originates from a small spring in the Tver region, on the outskirts of the village of Volgoverkhovye, Ostashkovsky district. The brook, which later grows to one of the largest rivers, can be stepped over – it does not exceed half a meter in width.
- In 1827, a beluga weighing 1.5 tons was caught in the Volga.
- The Volga trade route has been known since the 8th century. And since the 11th century, the Ushkuiniki pirates flourished on the river, one of which was Stepan Razin.
- From a scientific point of view, the Volga is a tributary of the Kama. But since its historical role is much more noticeable, it is considered the main river, and the Kama is a tributary.