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Dam Development in Russia

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Hydropower was the main reason for large-scale water infrastructure development in the former Soviet Union.  Shortly after the establishment of the USSR, the new government supported hydropower projects that built hundreds of small, medium, and even large dams during the 1920s in European Russia.  Attention then shifted to large dams, which were developed on major rivers in Europe and Siberia.  Another important development, facilitated by the free workforce at labor camps of the Stalin era, was the building of numerous canals connecting major river basins.

Russia now has more than 50 large hydropower stations and many are in desperate need of repair.  Many of the largest projects were stopped in mid-construction and were left unfinished when Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The state-owned power-generating monopoly United Russia Energy (RAO EES) is headed by the mastermind of Russian privatization Mr. Chubais, an outspoken proponent of hydropower.  Russia Energy is a business driven by market demand.  The company controls 22.9 GW of hydroelectricity production in 49 hydropower stations, most thermal electricity production of the country and major power grids of the country.  Most of the company's hydropower plans are in energy self-sufficient Siberia and Russia’s Far East.  This despite a fact that power shortages and black-outs increasingly occur in European Russia, some 5300 km to the west.  Being export-oriented and forward-looking, United Russia Energy hopes to build an environmental image and embrace "corporate responsibility”.  In 2007-2008 United Russia Energy monopoly will split in more than a dozen independent energy producing companies, and one of them, Russia Hydro, will inherit all the hydropower plants.

In the Amur-Heilong River Basin, in addition to the Zeya HPP and the recently completed Bureya HPP, Russia Hydro plans to construct the Lower Bureya HPP, several Lower Zeya HPPs and may, at any moment, take from the shelf a few dozen other large dams projects which were prepared during the Soviet era (see map).  The greatest threat to the Amur-Heiling River is potential collaboration with China on HPPs in the main stem of the river.

All other existing dams and reservoirs in the Russia part of Amur-Heilong River Basin are tiny in comparison with the HPPs; these dozen dams do not exceed 0.1 cubic kilometer water storage.  These dams are used for agriculture and urban water supply and are fewer than 300 in number.

Zeya and Bureya Dams

Although hydropower exploration in the Russian Far East started in mid-20th Century, only two large hydropower dams have been built to date in Amur-Heiling River Basin.  In terms of their flood control capacity and impacts on the Amur-Heilong River ecosystem, these two Russia dams, however, are equal to China’s combined hydropower capacity in the basin.  The impacts of large hydropower plants on nature are orders of magnitude larger than those of smaller reservoirs typically built to store water for irrigation, fish farming or flood control.

Zeyskaya HPP Reservoir.  The giant Zeya Dam was completed in 1975 on the second largest tributary of the Amur River, the Zeya River.  The dam has 1,330 MW capacity and produces about 4,900 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.  The reservoir covers 240,000 hectares and has a volume of 68.4 km3 (close to the volume of the Three Gorges Reservoir on China’s Yangzi River).  At its widest point the reservoir is 24 km across.  It is known locally as "Zeya Sea" and water quality is seriously affected by 3.9 million cubic meters of un-salvaged timber and 98,000 hectares of peatland that are slowly decomposing on the reservoir bed.

Bureyskaya Hydropower Reservoir.  Immediately after the completion of the Zeya Dam in 1975, construction began on the Bureya Dam in the Bureya River.  Construction was halted for decades until 1999, when RAO-UES, the Russian state-owned monopoly for electric power generation, rejuvenated the project and arranged completion of the dam in 2003.  The company managed to avoid many environmental and social liabilities while completing the project.  Bureyskaya is even larger than the older facility on the Zeya River, with planned capacity of 2,000 MW and 7,100 million kWh of annual output.  However, Bureyskaya reservoir is smaller, with only 20.9 km3 of capacity (full volume to be reached by 2008).  The projected surface area of the reservoir exceeds 600 km2.  In the near future RAO-UES plans to build the Lower Bureya Reservoir immediately downstream of the Bureya Dam and with a smaller reservoir capacity.  Bureya reservoir is 1/3 the size of the Zeya reservoir, but follows the same devastating pattern in which wide mountain valleys that are critically important habitat for many species of wildlife are submerged and then become an additional source of long-term pollution because of decomposing vegetation on the former river valley.
The Zeya and Bureya dams altered hydraulic and river-bed formation processes, and blocked migration paths for many species of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.  The Zeya Dam alone controls about 40 percent of total Zeya River and accumulates 71 percent of the upper Zeya waters in its giant reservoir.  Operation of the Zeya dam has altered downstream water levels.  After power generation began at the Zeya hydropower plant, flood levels declined in the middle Amur-Heilong River by about 2.8 meters.  In contrast, winter flows in the Zeya River increased nine-fold in February-March, and even remote Komsomolsk-on-Amur City experiences a two-fold increase in March flows.  These increases are due to discharge from the reservoirs to generate power during winter.  Increased winter flow is generally considered the main cause of drastic change of sedimentation and bank erosion patterns occurring for up to 1,000 km downstream.
Reduced levels of flooding has led to significant alteration of floodplain wetlands and meadows within a range of 1,200 km downstream from the dams.  Zeya reservoir had a profound influence on floodplain wetlands downstream, with many floodplain ponds degrading, disappearing, or suffering accelerated sediment deposition and reduced concentrations of dissolved oxygen, thus degrading conditions for aquatic biota.  The downstream effects of the Bureya Dam in this respect compound the effects of the Zeya Dam and remain poorly documented.
Academic institutions have studied the environmental effects of the Zeya dam since the late 1970s.  And despite a long history of planning and legal requirements, no formal environmental impact assessment has ever been published to document the downstream effects of the hydropower facilities on river ecology.

Map collection:

Climate, waters and water management



Simplified hydrography of Amur River basin (Basemap)

Detailed hydrography of Amur River basin

Wetlands of Amur

Water infrastructure: dams and water transfers


Amur river system

Water management

Water pollution


GIS: Amur hydrography, wetlands and water infrastructure


Construction of Bureya Hydro. (Photo by Zov Taigi)

Also look:

Western rivers of headwaters of Amur-Heilong River Basin

Eastern tributaries in Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes and reservoirs of Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes of Western Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes of Eastern Amur-Heilong River Basin

River between –environmental perspective on Amur water management

Water infrastructure in the Amur-Heilong River Basin

Water management and dams in China

Water Transfers in China

Water transfers and wells in Mongolia

Development of dykes

Case Study on international planning: "Joint Comprehensive Scheme on Amur and Argun Rivers"

Is there enough water?

WCD lessons for Amur

Water pollution conundrum


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