SKWC in Russia!

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Some SKWC members visited Astrakhan, Russia this week to exchange ideas about SKWC-like work. This was part of a Bard College Center for Civic Engagement and Environmental and Urban Studies program grant. This blog post is by Interim Leadership Team member Tom O’Dowd and Bard CCE Science Outreach Coordinator Siira Rieschl (3rd and 4th from the left here; Bard students Sammy Astrachan–yes that is his name–and Emma Donahue are 1st and 2nd from the left). The Volga is seen here from the Astrakhan Kremlin belltower.

Exchanging Ideas about Protecting Waterways through Youth Engagement

We’re writing from the Moscow Airport reflecting on an amazing week. Our friends from the Astrakhan State University Eco Squad taught us all about the Volga River watershed and how they train the next generation of environmental leaders to protect the Volga. Our ASU hosts Mischa, Denis, and Nastya guided us on exciting excursions to understand their environment and helped us get to know some of the professors, co-workers, project partners, and students working to protect the Volga and its delta. We have learned so much from each other, and plan to continue to collaborate on a toolkit for youth engagement, and also explore future collaborations such as research, publications, and exchanges!

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About the Volga River at Astrakhan

The Volga River is about 6 times as long as the Hudson River and the Astrakhan Oblast occupies the downstream area of the Volga Watershed as the river enters the land-locked Caspian Sea. The city of Astrakhan lies along the banks of the Volga itself, but is surrounded by many small rivers that make up the Volga Delta. It’s fascinating that the Volga begins with many tributaries and ends with many channels—it’s almost like the delta is a reverse-watershed. Just as the Saw Kill Watershed Community protects a small tributary of the Hudson, the Astrakhan State University’s Eco-Squad protects smaller channels throughout the Volga delta region, like the Churka. A river clean-up of the Churka, reminiscent of the Riverkeeper Sweep on the Hudson, had high school students collecting trash that floated onto land during the floods of the Spring wet season. It seems that Russia (like the U.S.) has its share of people who respect the health and beauty of the water, as well as those who don’t. This hands-on activity encourages youth to face head-on the health of the watershed in a way that tangibly complements their in-classroom experience.

Our excursions to explore the natural resources of the Volga were as varied as trips to a wildlife preserve, a sturgeon-breeding farm, various science labs, and a training center for Lukoil (a petroleum company that mines gas from platforms on the Caspian Sea). At the wildlife preserve we saw a landscape similar to that of the Tivoli Bays—Bard’s part of the Hudson River. There were cattails and willows, just like at Bard. There were also phragmites and water chestnut, nonnative and invasive plants at Bard, but apparently native to Astrakhan. We also saw the lotus, a symbol of Astrakhan, growing wild much the same way pickerelweed grows on the Hudson. It’s flowering season over, we sampled the seeds of the lotus fruit, which were delicious.

Sturgeon are also symbols of Astrakhan (more universally than Atlantic and Short-nosed sturgeon are symbols of the Hudson River). The private sturgeon breeding plant we visited raised several species of sturgeon native to the Volga and other parts of Russia. Apparently a major hydroelectric operation on the Volga has curtailed sturgeon catches. These fascinating creatures are on the endangered species list in the U.S. and in “the red book” in Russia. They are sensitive to PCBs and other environmental disturbances, so they can serve as important symbols of conservation as well as culture.

The Lukoil plant showed us how important the gas and oil businesses are in the Caspian Region (Astrakhan is home to many Gazprom offices as well). So far Russian platforms haven’t suffered a disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but there do seem to be some environmental consequences of drilling and shipping oil. That being said, Lukoil and others fund the protection of wildlife preserves and pay for some environmental education programs.

About the people of Astrakhan

An exchange of ideas comes with an exchange of understanding and a magnification of empathy and friendship. This was our experience visiting our friends from the Astrakhan State University Eco Squad. I now better understand the Volga watershed, its issues, and its protectors, as well as a bit about the people of an important lesser-known region, and I think the people understand us a little bit more as well.

Mischa, Denis, and Nastya and their colleagues were some of the kindest people we have ever met. They gave so much of their time and energy to provide us a full and enjoyable experience, and were deeply curious about us and our work. The students we worked with on the clean up were inspiringly positive and hard-working (and sang some great Russian folk songs and pop songs!). Everywhere we went we were treated to delicious hand-cooked meals like Ookha (fish stew), teas, and sweets. We now consider these people and this place near and dear to our hearts. We will never forget all that we learned during our time with our Russian friends and it has enriched our lives and work forever.

Take-Homes and Next-Steps.

The Bard College students and student members of the ASU Eco-Squad will continue to collaborate on the Toolkit for Youth Engagement in Waterway Protection through Skype Sessions and emails. Tom and Siira will continue to guide the students creating the toolkit and planning workshops for Bard College faculty, staff, and students and members of the Saw Kill Watershed Community. We have so many ideas from our trip that we’d like to share. We will also be reaching out to our colleagues at ASU to discuss future collaborations like collaborative research and publications in journals. We’re all hopeful for future grant-funded international exchanges—but we’ll work on the projects at hand first! We have planted the seeds of friendship and collaboration through this project, and we will cultivate these as if they were a lotus or a sturgeon, and reap many benefits now and in the future.

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