Russia: Nation of floods

  • Themes: Environment, Russia

Floods, fires and the melting permafrost amount to an ever-growing set of problems for Russia, but Putin is too focused on the war in Ukraine to confront the growing crisis.

Aerial view of severe damage to homes caused by massive floods in the Irkutsk region of Russia, 2019.
Aerial view of severe damage to homes caused by massive floods in the Irkutsk region of Russia, 2019. Credit: Russian Government / Alamy Stock Photo

The raging floods in Russia’s Ural regions show no sign of ending. In Orenburg, the Tobol and Ural rivers have risen above crest. Russian officials have warned of ‘unprecedented’ flooding in the coming days. ‘Fast-melting ice and torrential rain’ have caused the overflow. Scores of residents in Orsk protested against the government’s weak response in a rare show of dissent. Videos showed the crowds shouting ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ and ‘Putin, help!’, but the tsar is too busy fighting in Ukraine to pay attention. In the Orenburg region, roughly 14,300 households in 26 municipalities remain flooded, and the evacuation of thousands of people continues. In Orsk, another dam is melting, about to collapse, and tributaries to the Ural and Tobol are over full capacity, with massive flooding along their banks.

Three regions of the Urals Federal District are in the zone of severe flooding: Tiumen, Kurgan and Cheliabinsk, each of which has strategic industrial facilities, some nuclear, some petrochemical, that, if not directly at risk, are likely to leak pollutants further downstream into the Tobol, the Irtysh and the Arctic Ocean. President Putin’s envoy to the Urals Federal District hinted that Kazakhstan might be responsible for the flooding because of excessive water releases where the Tobol flows through Kazakhstan, which rejects such claims.

These floods are not unprecedented; they occur every year throughout Russia. The blame for these annual events lies with the country’s approaches to river-basin management in practices that date to the Soviet era. From the northwest to central Russia, to the Ural mountains to Siberia, river basins require significant investment to repair old waterworks. Existing hydropower stations, dams and other impoundments are collapsing. Siltation plagues most rivers and limits the effectiveness of impoundments. Extensive pollution by petrochemicals, agricultural runoff and radioactive waste plagues many of these flooded rivers. As the frequency of flooding increases, the costs in human life and property damage also continue to grow.

There are three major reasons for annual spring flooding disasters in Russia. The first is global warming, with changes in precipitation, temperature and violence of storms, which mean more spring runoff and earlier thaws. Russia has been extremely slow to respond to global warming; Siberia is melting. The second cause is over-engineered river basins, with reclamation projects and dams that have eliminated wetlands that could act like a sponge to help absorb water; torrents of water are funnelled into residential areas instead.

The third reason is particularly Russian: the failure of the government to prepare for such disasters through investment in repairs, dredging and other practices that might better handle the floods. Instead earthen and concrete dams are failing while the Putin administration invests in new construction. The oligarchs desire big dams to help power extractive industries with cheap hydroelectricity. Through RusGidro, a massive hydrological construction and power generation agency that derives from the Stalinist gulag labour camps, investment goes to big Siberian dams. These include the 3,000 MWe Boguchanskaia hydroelectric power station (HPP) that powers RusAl aluminium mills and the forecasted Evenkiiskaia HPP at 800 MWe. RusGidro claims that only 20 per cent of the country’s hydro-potential has been developed, and it wants more.

What about older facilities? The heroic dams of the Soviet era are increasingly unsafe. In August 2009 the machine hall of the Saiano-Shushenskaia HPP – the sixth largest HPP in the world – on the River Enisei in Siberia, was destroyed when a 1,700-ton turbine burst through its cover, killing 77 workers. During its construction, the station had been plagued by accidents, flooding, and equipment malfunctions. Putin and RusAl oligarchs provided all necessary resources to rebuild the station within five years.

While the Putin administration focused on big new projects, primarily on Siberian rivers, to tap hydroelectric potential, many Soviet-era projects long ago reached the end of their useful lives and require upkeep and maintenance. The crisis of waterworks in Russia’s northwest is instructive. The decrepit concrete impoundments have become sites for curiosity-seekers, hikers, and swimmers, while state safety inspectorates are underfunded, understaffed, and lack power of enforcement to make repairs. In the northwest region alone there are 350 small hydropower stations in various stages of collapse with few operational. In Karelia, perhaps eight or nine stations out of 50 are in operation. In the Arkhangelsk region there are roughly 80 Soviet-era stations, though how many are safe is unclear. The same uncertainty plagues Vologda, Novogorod, and Pskov provinces. The Oredezhskii cascade in the Gatchina region south of St Petersburg has six small stations, built between 1954 and 1960, not one of which produces electricity. High water along rivers, small and large, threatens villages. Every spring flood leads to more damage and loss of life from the northwest to the Urals to Siberia, while hapless authorities treat the situation as if it is an unexpected emergency.

Massive floods in the Altai region of western Siberia in spring 2014, which washed out bridges, roads and villages, sound eerily reminiscent of the ongoing disaster in the Urals. Heavy floods destroyed 230km of roads, 20 bridges and electrical infrastructure. Over 200 towns and villages and 40 municipalities were flooded, six people died, and 10,000 people lost their homes. Hay lay ruined, firewood and cattle floated away, basements filled with water. The government offered a pittance in aid, $300 per person, and if their property had been destroyed they might qualify for another $1,500 to $3,000 after paperwork was filed. Emergency personnel handed out pills and vaccines against hepatitis A. The government promised small business loans, and sent in mobile sanitation teams to fight disease, fecal contamination, and to supply water. After these floods, Putin promised: ‘Together with the regional authorities, [the Emergencies Ministry] has done everything necessary to save lives, avoid major damage and protect people’s property as far as it was possible.’ Every year, floods – and raging forest fires – plague Putin’s Russia from Sochi to Ussuriisk, from Magadan to Komsomolsk, from the Arctic to Siberia.

The same situation exists throughout post-Soviet spaces from the Caucasus to Central Asia. Nearly annual flooding in Uzbekistan led to the creation of a new state inspectorate to survey the safety of the nation’s extensive canals, dams and other waterworks. The inspectorate determined that the source of most problems is low-quality Soviet concrete and poor construction practices that affect many Central Asian Soviet relics – reservoirs, hydro-complexes, pumping stations – all of which need immediate repair.

Freed from past Soviet strictures on open publication of hydrological results, some scientists have been actively engaged in drawing attention to the fragile state of waterworks. Scientists in Akademgorodok, Siberia, worry about the Ob River Reservoir, and the impact of frequent strong winds and waves, which engineers did not anticipate, on its shoreline. The deterioration of reservoirs is a national epidemic owing to siltation, rapid construction, and the failure properly to remove forests, villages, and other material from river basins before inundation, and of course owing to their age. Disagreements among competing interests (timber, transport, fisheries, leisure) about climate change, drought, and pollution, make things worse. In an effort to secure good publicity, RusGidro often sponsors the clean up of reservoir shorelines to secure good publicity. But the clean up effort is dreadfully underfunded. From 2012 to 2014 only 16.5 kilometres of the entire Kuibyshev HPP reservoir, at 400 km long and with a surface area of 6,450 km², was repaired. RusGidro budgets are directed toward construction, not repair.

On top of this, lack of access to drinking water is a national problem. The people in Orenburg, in the Altai, and elsewhere have no potable water after floods. Three fifths of Russians draw water from wells where contamination is often an issue; industrial pollution and agricultural run-off remain significant problems; significant fish kills frequently occur; heavy metals contaminate most water sources and those contaminants spread during flooding. Epidemics of cholera, salmonella, typhoid fever, dysentery, and viral hepatitis have reappeared. Only one per cent of all sources of potable water in Russia meet standards of the highest category of quality without needing extra purification.

Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters challenge modern governments everywhere from Europe to the US to Iran, India and China. But the Russian government seems singularly unprepared to respond effectively and humanely to every disaster. Mikhail Gorbachev tardily responded to the Chernobyl explosion and tried to be more proactive in response to the Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1988. Putin seems to be inept in these matters. He mishandled the Kursk submarine disaster; several terrorist attacks, most recently at Crocus City Hall where 137 people were murdered; the Moscow fires of 2021; and all of these floods.

Fires, floods and the melting of permafrost amount to an ever-growing set of problems for Russia. In Orenburg, the authorities have recently identified 27 cases of ‘intestinal infection’ related to the flood situation, although the government claims that tap water is not dangerous. Meanwhile, the Putin administration spends billions of rubles on war, sends troops and armaments to invade Ukraine, and advances plans to build HPPs beyond the Urals with tens of thousands of megawatts total capacity. And the people of soggy central Russia will pay with loss of life, livelihoods and memories that have floated away, and will float away again next spring.


Paul Josephson