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Soviets to Proceed with Massive Irrigation Projects

June 5, 1985

MOSCOW (AP) _ The Kremlin will press forward with gigantic irrigation and reclamation projects, including a plan to channel rivers of Siberia now flowing into the Arctic Ocean to the arid south, a Soviet minister said Wednesday.

Nikolai F. Vasilyev, minister of land reclamation and water resources, told a news conference that the cost of the river reversals alone would exceed the equivalent of $11.6 billion.

The announcement rebutted speculation that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who has stressed the need to increase efficiency and productivity, might scale back expensive reclamation projects promoted by his predecessors.

Vasilyev also said the Soviet Union would continue plans to boost farm output, especially feed grains, through a massive land reclamation program outlined at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting last October.

The state-run news media quoted then-Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko as telling the meeting that land reclamation would be the decisive factor in boosting agricultural output. He called for a 50 percent increase in irrigated and drained lands.

But Gorbachev, who became party chief when Chernenko died in March, was believed to have opposed reliance on land reclamation because of its high cost.

In discussing the Soviet food program during a speech to a Communist Party economic conference in April, Gorbachev, who had been the party official responsible for agriculture, did not even mention reclamation.

He also warned, ″we cannot count on significant increases″ in land and other agricultural resources.

Fickle weather and other problems have seriously hurt Soviet grain harvests in recent years, forcing the country to spend much of its precious hard currency to import feed grain.

The 1984 grain harvest was estimated by U.S. agriculture officials at only about 170 million metric tons, 70 million tons short of the Kremlin target. The Soviets imported $7 billion in grain to help ease the shortfall, according to U.S. estimates.

Vasilyev acknowledged Wednesday that the first mandate of the October agricultural meeting was to use existing land more efficiently. But he said draining more wetlands and irrigating arid regions is the key to boosting output.

″There is no other way for us but large-scale irrigation and land reclamation projects,″ Vasilyev said.

He declined to put a price tag on the projets, but said the cost of bringing water south from north-flowing Siberian rivers would exceed the equivalent of $11.6 billion.

When asked where the money would come from, he said without elaborating that such projects aren’t undertaken unless they pay for themselves within 10 years after completion. Vasilyev did not indicate how long the project would take to build.

The most controversial plan involves diverting water from the north-flowing Ob river southward in a 1,550-mile canal across the Turgay lowlands.

The water would help replenish the Aral Sea, which is drying up because of present irrigation drain on rivers in the region.

Some Soviet and Western environmentalists have speculated that river diversions would reduce heat flowing into the Arctic Ocean, which might increase ice formation and alter global weather patterns.

Vasilyev said initial plans call for diverting less than 5 percent of the Ob’s flow. He said Soviet scientists have determined that ″No global impact will ensue, and the changes that will be brought about will be local in nature.″

He said design plans should be ready by 1988, after which a decision would be made on how and when to begin construction.

Soviet engineers hope to correct the situation that finds most of the vast nation’s rivers flowing north into the Arctic Ocean, while all of the arable land is located in the south.

The problem has worsened since the 1930s as massive irrigation projects throughout agricultural and arid regions of the country have drained the south-flowing rivers, shrinking the Caspian and Aral seas.

Various river diversion projects have been announced over the past few decades, including a 70-mile canal linking the Pechora River to the Kama, a tributary of the Volga, which was begun in 1977 and estimated to cost $1 billion.

Proposals to divert water from the Ob, Irtysh and Tobol rivers have been made and revised over the past 10 years, with estimated costs running as high as $100 billion. The cost of the initial stage of the Ob project was estimated at $2.1 billion at the current exchange rate.

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