Viewpoint -- To Russia With Love

Dec. 21, 2004
How big business can save the third world

Trains depart Yaroslavski Station in Moscow heading for Beijing on the Trans Siberian Railway several times a week. One of the last great train rides, the trip draws foreign tourists, businesspeople, drunks, and ordinary Russians who want to travel long distances inexpensively. Along the journey the train offers glimpses of old Russia. The engine car chugs past Yekaterinburg, where revolutionaries executed the last czar. It stops in Novosibirsk, a Soviet-style industrial center replete with century-old metal-bending factories. It passes hundreds of miles of pine and birch forests dotted by antique wooden houses, their shutters faded by harsh winters and hot summers to pastel colors of peach, mint green, and light blue. It takes about five days to reach Lake Baikal -- the world's oldest lake. Baikal also is the world's deepest lake, and its waters stretch across an area larger than Belgium. International hydrologists believe Baikal holds the world's biggest reserve of clean water. It hosts the globe's only freshwater seal, 30 species of sculpins, and dozens of other creatures found nowhere else in the world. In 1996 UNESCO named Lake Baikal a World Heritage Site, but even that failed to stop pollutants from flowing into the 25-million-year old lake. In the early 1960s the Soviet government began building a huge pulp and paper mill at Baikalsk on the southern rim of Lake Baikal. The government's iron fist failed to quell local protests against the plant, but the angry voices of writers, farmers, and scientists failed to hold back construction. The cellulose plant went up, and for more than three decades, it has poured waste into the waters and emitted foul smoke into the air. A stomping ground for activists, the paper plant still manages to dump toxic discharge into the water. Ecologists are concerned that the emissions are hurting endemic creatures and point to dioxins found in the fatty tissues of local seals. In April a group of them wrote to UNESCO urging the organization to put Baikal to its list of endangered world heritage sites, reports the Financial Times. Local advocacy groups are particularly concerned about a presidential decree issued in May that terminated the state committee for ecology and the Russian forestry committee -- the two government bodies charged with protecting places like Lake Baikal. The responsibilities of these two government units now fall under the Ministry of Natural Resources, which also handles economic development. Environmentalists are dismayed at the apparent conflict of interest. They warn that Russian officials are capitulating to big business that insists that a third-world nation can't afford first-world environmental standards. Third-world nations can and must implement first-world environmental standards, and big business can help them. Models of third-world nations implementing first-world standards exist. Founded less than four decades ago, Singapore was once a filthy swamp where people went hungry. The country managed to pull itself out of the third world while implementing tough environmental standards. Today it is a world-class-manufacturing center. Its people are well fed and some complain the nation is too clean. Singapore's management of water is especially impressive. Water conservation arose out of necessity. The city-state has few natural sources of water. Catchments cover half the nation, but they only satisfy half of Singapore's daily water needs. The government buys the rest of its water from Malaysia. To quench the thirst of its people and industries, Singapore's Public Utilities Board, the official water management arm, implemented a comprehensive water conservation plan in 1981. The plan encourages water recycling. It urges manufacturers to replace fresh water with seawater or sewage. In 1983 legislation was passed requiring industry to install water-saving devices such as constant flow regulators. To ensure water conservation, the water board audits large customers regularly. It also organizes conferences and seminars to offer business new developments in water conservation. The results are promising. Wafer fabrication plants recycle up to 73% of the water used. Some 50 plants use treated sewage for cooling, washing, and process applications. "In terms of efficient, urban water systems, Singapore is very good," observes Sandra Postel, who has studied water systems around the world as director the Global Water Policy Project, Amherst, Mass. Multinationals have played a major role in Singapore's rise to success, and should help other nations such as Russia to achieve similar environmental standards. They can do so by implementing first-world environmental-protection practices wherever they operate. STMicroelectronics NV, a $5 billion semiconductor manufacturer with 17 plants around the world, takes this approach. In its factory in China, for instance, the Saint Genis Pouilly, France headquartered manufacturer follows Germany's tough packaging laws. An environmental leader in its industry, STMicroelectronics also offers freely to other businesses conservation processes or technology it has developed. If other manufacturers followed these two admirable practices the third world would be a good deal cleaner. Papermaker Georgia Pacific Corp., for instance, made water conservation a corporate goal in 1994 and since then has achieved impressive reductions in use and discharge. Its mill in Brunswick, Ga., has cut water use in half since 1980. Now 15 of its chemical plants reuse the water that comes into contact with raw materials or finished products instead of discharging it into rivers or lakes. What the world needs is a meeting between the engineers at Georgia Pacific who developed these impressive water conservation measures and their counterparts at the paper mill in Baikalsk, Russia, which continues to spew pollutants into one of the globe's last great reserves of fresh water. Last time I checked there were still seats available on the Trans Siberian.

Weld Royal is an IndustryWeek senior editor based in New York.

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