« Volunteer Photo of the Week: Marzia Garin | Main | Must See Festivals with a Difference »

Sochi: the Local Environmental Effects of the Global Games

Starting 7 February 2014, the world will turn its attention to Russia as they host the most expensive Olympics in history. Environmentalists attest that in addition to the price tag are significant social and ecological costs.

Image courtesy of Human Rights Watch

President Vladimir Putin and Russian Olympic coordinators asserted at Sochi’s conception that they would be staging a “zero waste” Games.  Hosting an event of this magnitude with a goal like this in mind is undeniably challenging, and claims have been made that the Russian planning committee has not followed through.

Environmental controversy begins with the chosen location. Sochi is subtropical, located in one of the warmest regions of Russia. This climate has contributed to creating an incredibly biodiverse region, home to Sochi National Park in the Western Caucasus. The latter has been classified by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a World Heritage natural site. These ecological sites have suffered from Olympic construction and the dumping of hazardous waste, according to representatives from the group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Due to the comparatively mild winters Sochi experiences, all winter sport complexes required for the Olympics had to be built. Demands for infrastructure to support the upcoming events have led to high costs and massive construction efforts. The unfortunate village of Akhshtyr is one of the rural areas that have suffered the consequences.

Russian Railways currently operates is responsible for the construction of the most expensive Sochi development project: a road and rail link between the airport and ski sites that is set to cost more than the entirety of the Vancouver games. Years of dust in the name of this road have dried up Akhshtyr’s wells, leaving villagers dependent on trucks to deliver water semi-weekly. Sediment from the project has also affected agricultural land, making many crops unfit for consumption.

In addition to these human rights violations, the road and hazardous dumping associated with its construction are contributing to other local issues.  Fragmented habitat has altered migration patterns of local species like the brown bear and put previously unaltered ecosystems at risk. Villagers’ attempts to petition the illegal dumping have led to a fine of $3,000 against the company, however dumping continues.

Again, location plays a large part in making construction practices especially detrimental to the environment. Seepage from the landfill feeds into the Mzymta River, which provides half of Sochi’s fresh water supply. Pollution of this source could affect water availability for the next decade, according to EWNC. Both human and wildlife could be feeling the effects of these games for years to come, especially if the road attracts more tourists, as the government hopes.

President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Sochi to begin a PR tour he hopes will boost the international image of the games. Despite Putin and the Olympic Committee’s public assertions that Sochi will serve as an example of sustainable development, evidence of local dissatisfaction and displacement speak to the contrary.  The world awaits the 2014 Winter Olympics with the hope that Russia can make good on its promises to host a tolerant, safe, and environmentally responsible games.

By Sara Kramer

Find out more about Frontier's dedicated environmental conservation projects and how to become a volunteer.

Get more from us on social media with FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest. 

See more from volunteers on YouTubeFlickr and Instagram #FrontierVolunteer.