Environment: Making Rivers Run Backward

A grandiose Soviet water scheme raises widespread fears

Each spring when the snows melt in the Urals and the icy waters come cascading down the mountains that divide the U.S.S.R. into its European and Asian halves, the Kremlin's planners are painfully reminded of their country's great geographical "mistake." By a quirk of nature, several of the Soviet Union's great rivers flow north, spilling into the Arctic Ocean, while to the south the steppes of Central Asia remain parched and sun-bleached, thirsting for fresh water.

As long ago as 1830, a czarist surveyor named Alexander Shrenk suggested a way of easing this imbalance by...

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