How a dam in Volgograd has almost killed off the caviar fish

Volgograd. Image: Getty.

Yesterday, the floodlights were turned on at the newly built Volgograd Arena for the first World Cup match to be held there, between England and Tunisia.

But, as an expert in the illegal caviar trade, I know Volgograd because the energy powering those same floodlights will be generated by the nearby Volgograd HydroElectric Station. This is the largest hydro power plant in Europe, and a dam which has played a pivotal role in driving sturgeon – the source of the iconic Russian delicacy, black caviar – to the brink of extinction.

The 725m long and 44m high concrete giant sits about 20km outside the city centre and dissects Europe’s longest and most powerful river, the Volga. Construction began in the 1950s, as part of post-war industrialisation initiatives known as the “Great Construction Projects of Communism”. This in a city which during the World War II – when it was known as Stalingrad – was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in history. The dam was completed in 1961 and today produces around 12 billion KW-hours of energy a year.

The Volga flows 3,500km northwards from the Caspian Sea. One of its tributaries even reaches Moscow. Image: Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons.

The station was groundbreaking in both scale and energetic output. For a few years, it may have been the single largest power plant in the world. But despite the benefits to the climate of “clean” hydro-powered energy, the Volgograd station has been particularly damaging for the sturgeon species that attempt to migrate from the Caspian Sea to reproduce in the upper reaches of the Volga.

Russia’s pride

Sturgeon, affectionately referred to as “Tsar Fish” are perhaps more critically endangered than any other group of species on the planet. There are 27 species in all, of which four are found in the Volga: Russian sturgeon, sterlet, stellate, and the beluga which is famous for producing the world’s finest caviar.

These fish are often described as “living fossils”. They’ve been around since dinosaurs walked the earth 150m years ago, and individual fish can live for more than a century. Sturgeon have attained a cultural and historical significance in Russia and are a source of national pride.

But socioeconomic change in Russia has been disastrous for these fish. Their rivers have been polluted, fragmented and dammed and this – along with overfishing and poaching for caviar – has caused populations in the Volga to plummet by 90 per cent since 1970.

A slow reproductive cycle means numbers cannot recover quickly. Females do not carry eggs annually, they take many years to reach sexual maturity and, of the 250,000 - 400,000 eggs they can release at one time, only two or three fish will survive.

Damming and decline

As the last of eight hydroelectric works in the Volga-Kama cascade of dams, the Volgograd Hydroelectric station is the first barrier sturgeon migrating upstream from the Caspian Sea will encounter. In theory sturgeon can pass the dam thanks to a hydraulic fish-lift in the original design. However, it is not clear whether the lift is still operational and, even if it is, its benefits have been counteracted by further dams built upstream. Even if fish do manage to cross the dam, the return journey can prove fatal, as it often requires passing through turbines that can weigh as much as a 747 aeroplane.

The Volgograd Hydroelectric station not only blocks sturgeon migration, but alters the natural flow and temperature of the river. Sturgeon are very sensitive and rely upon signals such as flow speed and temperature to determine when and where to reproduce. Therefore, the dam is said to have directly reduced the spawning grounds of sturgeon from 3,600 hectares to only 430 hectares. For beluga sturgeon in particular, 90 per cent of their natural spawning grounds have disappeared as a result of the Volgograd dam.


An illegal caviar trade is flourishing

It is undeniable that the Volgograd station has played a part in the demise of the Russian caviar industry. Due to rapidly declining wild sturgeon populations, Russia banned commercial sturgeon fishing and black caviar exports in 2002. Now, Russia allows just 9 tonnes of the delicacy to be sold on the domestic market annually, produced by a few government-regulated fish farms. These farms cannot come close to producing enough caviar to meet Russian, let alone worldwide, demand. As a result an illegal trade meets the shortfall, with reports suggesting that 250 tonnes of illegal caviar are produced each year.

Unsurprisingly then, almost all migrating spawners are poached below the Volgograd dam, and a particular hotspot is Russia’s so-called “Caviar Capital”, Astrakhan, around 400km downstream from Volgograd. There, illegal poaching of sturgeon and trade in caviar is said to be rampant – and beluga caviar fetches up to $10,000/kg. This has devastating ecological impacts – when sturgeon are removed at this point in the river the fish have not had the chance to reproduce.

Save the sturgeon

The situation looks bleak. Despite Russia releasing 50m or more sturgeon raised in hatcheries, there is sparse evidence that restocking is successful. In fact, despite such releases there has been an overall decline over the past decade. And it seems counter-intuitive to release millions of juvenile sturgeon when the Volgograd dam still prevents their migration and spawning – and given that downstream poaching is rife. Greater enforcement against poaching would be a good start, along with assertive efforts to help fish move along their natural rivers. (Something similar has helped shortnose sturgeon in the US.)

The ConversationSo, for football fans visiting Volgograd for the World Cup the best way to help sturgeon is to avoid the lure of purchasing any black caviar as souvenirs. But, if you are that way inclined, make sure to stick to customs regulations and try your utmost to ensure the caviar is from reputable farmed sources.

Hannah Dickinson, PhD Researcher in Wildlife Trafficking, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.