Moscow’s fresh water shortage

Khabiba writes*

Russia possesses a fifth of the world’s fresh water reserves, but these are  unevenly distributed [pdf]. The majority (90%) of its freshwater flows in the Arctic and Pacific watersheds where less than 15% of the population resides. Thus, only only 8% of Russian freshwater is available to the 80% of the population living and working in the central and southern regions of European Russia, which lies in the watershed of the Black and Caspian seas [pdf].

Russia’s capital (Moscow) faces water contamination concerns. Both surface and groundwater supplies are highly polluted. 56% of water supplies do not meet the safety standards. A 2013’s analysis of Moskva River water found high levels of sulfur, oil, aluminum, and heavy metals. The water is toxic, and proof of it is the sample outcomes from the investigations conducted by Greenpeace: in one sample, mercury levels were 20 times greater than safety standards; in another, manganese levels were 120 times greater.

Moskva River

Water pollution began in the Soviet era, when rampant industrialization led to enormous discharges of chemicals and waste into rivers. Upsettingly, such extensive industrial dumping continues to this day. Mosvodokanal registers some of the recent dumping activities. Factories either intentionally dump chemicals into rivers, or the chemicals arrive unintentionally via melted snows. A handful of local companies are taking action to prevent such dumping activities and improve water quality, but the incentives are mediocre. Environmental activists complain that only when “the ecological needs coincide with economic imperatives that the enterprises do anything.”

To minimize health hazards from contaminated waters, most of Moscow’s drinking water comes from upstream waters, which can still be foul. Downstream irrigators using Volga River water might be putting hazardous residuals on food crops.

Bottom Line: Moscow faces serious water pollution issues but lacks a strong political response.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Moscow’s fresh water shortage”

  1. This was super interesting to read 🙂 I am really curious about where the contaminated water flows and how that is impacting the people who live in those communities. I am a bit of a geography nerd and I am looking forward to hearing more about the environmental effects and I am curious about how the geography of the land is playing a role in this. I was also able to draw some parallels to my case study, particularly with the political incentives and industrial byproducts that are hindering progress and contaminating water sources.

    I can’t wait to read more! Sincerely, Olivia

  2. Dear Khabiba, what you are talking about resonates a lot with history of the water management of my region. During the Soviet era in the East of Germany, particularly in my region (Erzgebirge), heavily polluted surrounding water bodies due to the activities of the uranium company SDAG Wismut. Being the fourth largest producer of uranium in the world that time, it rather ignored that uranium, radon, arsenic, iron and manganese would enter the ground water, river etc. through the dust the produced, the mine water and leachate.
    After the reunification of Germany one of the biggest environmental projects of the country with a budget of 6,4€ billion worth got launched, restoring the landscape and cleaning-up the water bodies and flows. By now, all safety measures are met. However, the current test drillings for lithium due to the increasing demand of batteries suggest that our water management is awaiting another challenge.


  3. Dear Khabiba, thank you for this insightful article, I was truly unaware that the situation in such a profound capital was that severe. Your explanation on how the river became polluted was very clear and logical to follow. I had some additional thoughts that came into my head after reading your post. You mention that there are health hazards that arise from the pollution, however you never specify the exact impact this has upon the Moscow population. Are there higher mentality rates as a consequence, do children have developmental setbacks? Furthermore, it would be interesting to investigate as to why the local government has not taken any action against pollution. Wouldn’t it be in their interest to ensure the safety of their citizens? If not, what kind of a dilemma creates the problem; corruption, lack of funds or political views?

    Hope I was able to give some inspiration for further investigation!
    Sincerely, Lea

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