Talking to a friend in Se Yakha, at the shore of the Ob Bay close to the Kara Sea, I realised how far the consequences of the recent Norilsk oil spill could go: the recent New York Times article about the oil spill cite environmentalists and even a Russian minister saying that the consequences of the spill could last for a decade. This is echoed by our friends from the Yamal Peninsula, who might be again among the most vulnerable victims.
The concern is that the spilled oil will eventually end up in the Kara Sea. And if that happens, it will contaminate the water along of the migration route of fish, on which the indigenous population along the shores rely for their subsistence and livelihood.
Mikhail Okotetto from Se Yakha explained the consequences: as far as he knows especially the precious white fish called Omul that forms the staple food of many nomads on the Yamal and Taz Peninsula moves from the Kara Sea into the Ob and Taz Bay. Thus, when fish gets contaminated by the Norilsk oil in the Kara Sea, it either will die and the Nenets fishermen don’t catch any more. Or they will catch contaminated fish, and the oil will enter the food chain.
Why are these fishermen the most vulnerable victims of such a disaster? Not only do they drink water and eat fish that might be contaminated. Also they are least likely to receive any special attention or compensation related to this, because hardly anybody is a fisherman officially. Most tundra nomads are considered reindeer herders, although in fact fishing often makes the bulk of their livelihood. Officially white fish fishing is forbidden in the Ob and Taz Bay (according to Russian law, order 402 of the Russian Ministry for Agriculture, 22 Oct 2014, art. 21) but in fact still everybody fishes. But since it is illegal, these people obviously are not going to be compensated for losing a resource which they are not allowed to use in the first place.
If it is true what the responsible company Norilsk Nickel said about the reason for the oil spill, this is another sad example of cumulative impacts of climate change. It confirms our argument that the social impacts chain go so far that they are almost impossible to be anticipated before they happen. Here the chain looked like this: thawing permafrost leading to soft ground, leading to collapsing foundations of tanks, leading to oil spill, leading to water contamination, water currents spreading contamination to fishing grounds, fish dying or entering indigenous food chains, leading to health problems and / or loss of source of food for the population, whose traditional food supply has been made illegal even before the climate related environmental disaster.
Anthropological knowledge and ethnography of such impact chains can help documenting these possible paths, but they are so specific for every event that it is very hard, I would say basically impossible to predict and calculate them before hand. Especially the link between legal regulations of indigenous livelihoods,