ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Russia's Siberian south, near the border of Mongolia, the world's largest freshwater lake is shrinking.
The surrounding communities depend on Lake Baikal, which contains about one-fifth of the earth's unfrozen freshwater reserves, for their power, water and livelihoods.
But in the past four months the lake's water level has dropped so low that experts are calling it a crisis - one they warn could lead to conflicts in Russia over water.
The lake is now at its lowest level in over 30 years and experts predict it will keep dropping until melting mountain snow and spring rains begin to recharge the lake around late April or mid-May.
The problem, scientists and environmentalists say, is a combination of climate change and growing use of hydropower.
During last year's unusually dry summer and autumn, the lake got only 67 percent of the freshwater inflow it normally receives; experts predict in the first quarter of 2015 that figure will fall to 50 percent.
Meanwhile, hydropower stations along the lake's feeder rivers continue to draw water into their holding reservoirs at the normal rate, leaving the lake depleted, experts say.
Lake Baikal's dramatic drying already is causing tensions between the two regions that rely on it. In the Buryat Republic, upstream of the lake, wells are running empty and the area's fishing industry is struggling with decreasing fish populations.
Downstream, the people of the Irkutsk Oblast region who depend on the lake for their water and electricity supply are demanding they continue to have access to it despite the falling water level.
"Welcome to the era of water wars in Russia," said Alexander Kolotov, Russian coordinator of the international ecological coalition Rivers Without Boundaries. "Water is becoming the country's most valuable resource."
HYDROPOWER TO BLAME?
In late January, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment introduced daily monitoring of lake levels in an effort to reverse the drying of the lake.
For now, the government is allowing the Irkutsk hydroelectric power station to continue drawing river water that might otherwise have supplied the lake in order to keep the region supplied with heat, power and clean water.
"We are trying to pursue a balanced approach that takes into consideration the interests of all stakeholders," said ministry spokesman Nikolay Gudkov. "But that is not easy."
But a number of scientists and environmentalists have criticised the government's decision, saying the Irkutsk hydropower plant and the four others in the region are draining the lake and damaging the area's eco-systems.
Sergey Shapkhaev, director of the Buryat Regional Baikal Union, a local non-governmental organisation, argues that the lake's low water level will kill fish and crucial microorganisms. That, in turn, could result in less fish available to local communities.
"Microorganisms also play a vital role in 'cleaning up' the lake's water after the inflow of rivers," he said. "A reduction in their numbers might affect the water quality."
He said drying peat reserves on the lake's shores could mean the region will suffer more of the peat and forest fires that break out every summer.
WORSE TO COME?
For some climate experts, the shrinking of Lake Baikal is a sign of worse to come.
Extreme weather, they say, will bring about major fluctuations in bodies of water all over Russia. According to a report on climate change and its consequences in Russia published by the state meteorological service Roshydromet in July 2014, the country is facing a future of unprecedented and unpredictable cycles of drought and flooding.
"Russia remains a region of the world where warming of the climate in the 21st century will significantly exceed average global warming," the report warned.
In early February, Russia's environmental minister Sergey Donskoy told a sustainable development summit in New Delhi that the number of dangerous natural disaster events in the country increased by 6-7 percent annually over the last few years. He said that number could double within the next decade.
But there are also experts who say Lake Baikal's current low level is nothing to worry about.
Mikhail Grachev, director of the Limnological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says there is no immediate threat to the lake's ecosystem. Lake-level fluctuations are a common occurrence, and have not had long-term negative effects, he told RIA Novosti in January.
That is of little comfort to the people living around the lake. Natalia Tumureeva, a resident and representative of the Buryat Regional Baikal Union, claims that up to 27,000 people in the area are already without water as the wells in villages on the lake's shores have gone dry.
The Union has joined with a number of other environmental NGOs - including WWF Russia and Greenpeace Russia - to come up with recommendations for the hydropower industry on how to work with climate patterns and decrease the burden on the lake's eco-system.
They include asking energy companies to tailor their water intake to the lake's natural cycles and lower the rate at which they siphon water from the lake in low-water periods.
With experts predicting that variable weather will become the norm, the region will have to learn to expect drastic changes in Lake Baikal's water levels, experts say.
"We certainly need adaptation in the area," said Alexey Kokorin, head of the climate and energy program at WWF Russia. (Reporting by Angelina Davydova; editing by Laurie Goering)