Degradation of soil and land resources

As in many other countries, the quality of land resources in Russia is deteriorating. In the main industrial and agricultural regions of Russia, most land began to deteriorate in as early as the 1950s. From 1989 to 2000 the process of soil fertility loss accelerated due to erosion, the violation of land-use regimes, reductions in fertiliser use, and chemical and radiation pollution.

At present, the total area of degrading land in Russia is between 150 and 200 million hectares. Erosion, desertification, swamping, shrubbing and littering are all damaging the soil, and soil acidity is rising. According to Russian scientists, soil fertility has decreased drastically over the past few decades. The overall balance of nutrients in the soil is negative, at around minus-100 kg per hectare.

Two main types of factors contribute to land degradation: natural and anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human activity). Natural factors include various climatic, hydrogeological and other conditions and processes, which have existed for centuries without causing significant degradation. It is the anthropogenic factors that are the major causes of the degradation of land resources. Industrial and agricultural pollution has resulted in changed soil properties, disturbed soil formation processes, and reduced soil fertility.

There are numerous causes of soil degradation in Russia. They include water and wind erosion; salinisation and alkalinisation; land flooding in the process of reservoir construction; wetland drainage and melioration; soil compaction caused by the use of heavy agricultural equipment; contamination with oil products and industrial pollutants; and radioactive pollution (from the Chernobyl disaster and the radioactive trail from the Urals).

Since natural conditions are so diverse in Russia, soil degradation in various regions of the country has specific patterns ranging from the degradation of reindeer pastures in the north, to soil depletion and erosion in central Russia, to desertification and salinisation in the south. The anthropogenic load on soil is the most intensive in the central and southern regions of Russia. This is caused by high urbanisation levels and population density, numerous industrial enterprises, intensive agriculture, and developed transportation infrastructure (motorways and railroads).

Substantial damage to the land resources of Russia is caused by water and wind erosion. While erosion itself is a natural process, it is often aggravated by thoughtless and environmentally unsound human activities. More than 60 percent of Russian agricultural lands are at risk of erosion, and this figure is rising continuously. More than 40 percent of agricultural land is subject to wind erosion, while around 20 percent suffers from water erosion. The erosion processes result in an annual loss of around 1.5 billion tonnes of fertile soil layer. A quarter of the total area of eroded lands in Russia is heavily eroded. The overall picture is disturbing — virtually every third hectare of arable land and pastures in the country needs erosion protection.

The following measures are used for erosion abatement:

• soil-stabilising crop rotation — dense seeding of perennial grass to anchor the upper fertile soil layer;

• agrotechnical measures — ploughing across the slope, keeping stubble after harvesting; and

• forest amelioration and gullying prevention measures — tree-planting, the creation of special anti-erosion forest belts (more than 500 specialised organisations in Russia perform such measures).

Soil degradation is also caused by salinisation and alkalinisation resulting from irrigation agriculture. The poor design and implementation of irrigation systems has resulted in irreversible changes to the soil condition.

Many Russian regions are subject to desertification. Around 100 million hectares of land are affected by this process in 35 regions of the Russian Federation. Desertification affects the Volga, Voronezh, Orenburg and Omsk regions, as well as Ciscaucasia, Dagestan and Transbaikalia.

Another type of land degradation is the change in soil properties and increased acidity due to the accumulation of toxic chemicals and radioactive substances in the soil cover caused by environmental pollution.

The main routes of pollutant entry to the soil include industrial and agricultural pollution, transboundary pollution from transport, and acid rains. The most significant soil pollutants are nitrogen and sulphur oxides, salts of heavy metals, and supertoxic substances that are hazardous to every living thing. Soil is often polluted by oil products following industrial accidents.

Of special concern is heavy soil pollution with toxic substances in the vicinity of major cities and industrial enterprises. In some cases MAC limits for heavy metals are exceeded tens of times. Aerospace surveys of the snow cover around major ferrous metallurgy plants show that industrial pollution can spread over a distance of up to 60 km. High levels of soil pollution with oil products are observed in the vicinity of oil producing and oil processing industries, and in areas where oil pipeline accidents have occurred.

More than 700,000 hectares of polluted land have been identified in Russia. It has been found that the soil quality of 14 percent of residential areas does not comply with hygienic standards.

Particularly high soil pollution levels are found in the cities and settlements of Primorsky, Volodga, Sverdlovsk, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Kirov, Nizhny Novgorod, the Novgorod and Orenburg regions, and in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Around many industrial areas stable soil pollution spots have formed with a radius of tens of kilometres. In particular, such spots are observed in the vicinity of the cities of Angarsk, Bratsk, Vladivostok, Vladikavkaz, Volgograd, Voskresensk, Irkutsk, Novokuznetsk, Novokuibyshevsk and Tomsk. In the Primorsky region, more than 50 percent of soil within settlements is dangerously polluted with lead (in Sverdlovsk region 28 percent; and in Saint Petersburg 22 percent of the city area).

Three cities in Russia are considered to be extremely dangerously polluted in terms of the total soil pollution indicator within the city and within 5 km of it. Living in Monchegorsk on the Kola Peninsula, Revda in the Urals region or Belovo in the Kemerovo region is considered dangerous to human heath.

Agriculture also causes the pollution of the soil with toxic organic chemicals: nitrates and pesticides. Since 1990, pesticide use in Russia has decreased eight times resulting in reduced overall pesticide soil pollution. Nevertheless, in more than 20 areas of the Russian Federation, including the Altai, Stavropol, Pskov, Orenburg, and Nizhny Novgorod regions, dangerous levels of pollution from pesticides are still observed.

Regions with substantial pesticide soil pollution include the Moscow and Irkutsk regions. Regions with moderate pollution, where more than 25 percent of soils in agricultural areas are contaminated with pesticides (including DDT and its derivatives), include central Chernozem (the Bryansk, Kursk, Tambov, and Tula regions), the northern Caucasus, the Primorsky and Upper Volga regions, and the republics of Mordovia, Udmurtia and Chuvashia. This is the result of the application of high and environmentally unsound amounts of fertilisers and pesticides.

A nationwide issue is the unsafe storage and disposal of old, now prohibited pesticides, of which there are around 30,000 tonnes in the country. Another pressing issue is the large-scale pollution of soil with radionuclides in the Bryansk, Tula, Kaluga, and Chelyabinsk regions caused by radiation accidents.

© The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe