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Nalchik’s river of discontent

3 March 2017
River Nalchik (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

Dredging works in the River Nalchik floodplain are allowing private entrepreneurs to unlawfully appropriate lands in the river’s ‘protective zone’, and are destroying the valley’s ecosystem.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s environment is rapidly becoming a catastrophe; this is evident along the small River Nalchik, which flows through Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital, also called Nalchik. All along the river and its tributaries, private entrepreneurs have for many years been building on the river’s inviolable protective zone with the tacit agreement of the municipal authorities and local government agencies.

Russia’s Water Code proscribes a protective zone along the sides of a body of water 30–50 metres wide, depending on the slope of its banks. Discharge of waste, including drainage water is expressly prohibited in this zone. Developments within the protective zone of the Nalchik and sewage discharges into the river are killing its flora and fauna.

Khasanya village (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

Over exploitation along the river

Right alongside the River Nalchik, barbecue joints, cafés, carparks, food kiosks, and shops are constantly being built, and motels and hotels have popped up illegally on the river’s floodplain. All of these facilities are causing irreparable damage to the environment, directly within the city’s main recreational area.

The shoreline’s relief is being changed by the construction of buildings and carparks; many perennial trees and bushes are being cut down. The cafés already in operation, as well as the marketplace located a stone’s throw from the river’s edge, are polluting the river with plastic and food waste.

Inhabitants of Khasanya, a suburb south-west of the city located on the right bank of the Nalchik, also dump household waste into the river and build terraces in the protective zone.

River Nalchik. Debris from terraces is clearly visible (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

Artificial straightening of the Nalchik’s course is killing the river

Abubekir Khatukhov, an assistant professor at Kabardino-Balkaria State University’s Department of Zoology has been studying the ecology of the floodplains in Kabardino-Balkaria for many years. He is trying to bring public attention to the problems caused by artificial changes to the terrain.

In the Khatukhov’s opinion, the main threat to the ecosystem of the River Nalchik valley are the dredging works being carried out with heavy machinery. As part of the work, bulldozers and excavators are artificially straightening the river’s channel. He does not exclude the possibility that senior officials tied to certain business interests are doing this purposefully in order to create new sites for eateries and other tourist facilities in the floodplain, under the guise of clearing the channel. The issuance of construction permits is just that sort of bureaucratic ‘business’.

‘The dredging is inflicting irreparable damage to the entire ecosystem of the River Nalchik valley. The water in the straightened channel is now flowing faster. [In the River Nalchik, the rate of flow has doubled over the past 3 years.] This has led to the deepening of the riverbed and the formation of canyons almost all along the river, as well as shoreline collapses. The authorities and businesses fail to understand that artificially straightening the river channel is leading to its decline. No river in the world has a straight channel; every one flows in a zigzag’.

River Nalchik. The concrete slabs show the former water level (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

‘Ecological and economic suicide’

After our conversation with Khatukhov, he proposed we examine the channels of the Nalchik and its tributary, the River Nartia, ourselves. All of what he said in our conversation was confirmed. The river really did run deep. The protective zone, which extends 50 metres on either side of the river, has already been built up within Nalchik’s city limits, and now the section adjacent to Khasanya is also being built up.

Construction by the River Nalchik (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

‘This is ecological and economic suicide’, says Khatukhov. ‘Developers seeking to use the protective zone as a recreational area are in fact destroying the recreational capacity of the valley. It is rapidly losing its attractiveness for rest and relaxation. Who needs eateries and hotels on the banks of a non-existent river? How will our city attract tourists — through top quality services and being famous for hotels? — of course not. Only with nature: vast parks, a pristine river with picturesque shores, fishing, swimming. In Russian, this is called ‘sawing off the branch you’re sitting on’.

New hotels by the River Nalchik (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

An environmental catastrophe has already happened in the city. You only have to look at the location of the old river embankments to understand how far the river has dropped. Due to the lowering of the water level, artificial lakes — a favourite relaxation spot for locals and visitors — are no longer being filled. Three of the four lakes have dried up; one is less than half full. Around Khasanya, a cascade of ten artificial ponds on the left bank of the river has dried up for the same reason. Now they resemble nothing more than empty bowls overgrown with reeds.

‘This is called the degradation of an ecosystem’, says Khatukhov. ‘A chain reaction happens. The destruction of one natural object leads to the death of others associated with it. If radical measures are not taken to halt the buildup on the shoreline and clear the protective zone of stores and carparks, unique places such as the famous Atazhukinsky garden, which is 150 years old, will die too.’

A construction site in the protective zone (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

A dying river

We go out to the left, elevated, bank of the river and look around. There is a forest, but obvious signs of its immanent death are visible everywhere. Even in February the trees are dried out. Many of them — wild pear, apple, and plum trees — are being engulfed by mistletoe, a parasitic plant. According to my travel companion, this is a sure sign of degradation. We get to the weirs and sluice gates by which water was formerly supplied to the ponds and lakes during the seasonal drop in river levels. They were dry and overgrown with weeds. We take photographs and go back down to the riverbed, mangled by bulldozers. Clearly visible are mounds of river stones and pebbles piled up by heavy machinery. Plastic bottles and bags are strewn everywhere.

‘I often come here to collect samples to research the river’s flora and fauna, and never bring along any container’, Khatukhov says with a bitter smile. ‘You can always find a suitable one here’.

Picking up a discarded bottle, my guide enters the river and starts turning over stones, looking for something.

‘Bottom-dwelling insects and other organisms are the natural health indicators of a stream’, Khatukhov explains calmly. ‘But I do not find a single crayfish or stonefly.’

He continues flipping over stones and after several minutes finds something.

‘There, finally, I found one!’ he says and unclenches his fist. I see some kind of insect resembling a small dragonfly, three centimetres in length.

‘It is a stonefly’, says Khatukhov, ‘which is a major component of local fish’s diets — gudgeons, minnows, and loaches. There are few stoneflies, very few. I barely found one! And here’s a caddisfly’, Abubakir shows me another stone that he has just pulled out of the river. A larva sits on it, in a cocoon of coarse river sand.

‘Not as bad as I expected’, the biologist comments on his findings, ‘but far from good. I have a photo that I took this summer. It’s easy to see how the entire bottom is overgrown with duckweed, aquatic vegetation of a dark green color. This indicates pollution of the river by household waste, leftover food, manure, and human sewage. Khasanya lies right on the riverbank, and a shopping centre located right at its entrance uses the river as a natural drain’.

Annual public efforts to rid the area of plastic and other rubbish do not bring any real benefits, since in the place of one discarded bottle or bag, five more appear. Wastewater is discharged by shoreline cafés and barbecue joints directly into the river, without any sort of treatment.

River Nalchik (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

Wasted potential

‘Our nature, that’s all we have’, says Khatukhov. ‘But the officials, businessmen and social activists of the city and republic who are responsible for [nature] do not want to understand this. Instead of making every effort to preserve the unique landscape and properly develop environmental tourism, it seems they are concerned only with how to make money on the river by offering entrepreneurs the right to lease the best sites in its floodplain’.

According to Khatukhov, nature does not forgive such treatment. At some point the river will swell with rain and wash away all the traffic and foot bridges. It has happened before. All the structures fortifying the shoreline will collapse into the canyon, washed by the current, the whole valley, then the current will slow down and eventually stop. The area surrounding Nalchik and the entire Nalchik River valley will turn into a swampy, malaria-infested lowland swarming with mosquitos. It bears repeating article 42 of the Russian Constitution here: ‘Everyone shall have the right to a favourable environment, reliable information about its state and for a restitution of damage inflicted on his health and property by ecological transgressions’.

An avocational recreation zone by the River Nalchik (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

According to Khatukhov, the negative consequences of straightening the course of the River Nalchik have become so evident that there can be no justification for continuing. He says that further degradation of the River Nalchik ecosystem must be stopped and ultimately the entire river valley must be reconstructed, with respect to the principles of hydrology and ecology.

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