Amur floods wreck havoc in Russian Far East

The afflicted area covers 400,000 square miles. Source: Dmitry Khomenko

The afflicted area covers 400,000 square miles. Source: Dmitry Khomenko

Damage from the natural disaster estimated at $1 billion; cities such as Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-na-Amure hardest hit.

The preliminary assessment of the damage from the unprecedented, powerful and protracted flooding in Russia’s Far East is estimated at $1 billion. Locals who have been fighting the high waters for the second month in a row are comparing the catastrophe to the Biblical Great Flood. Almost 30,000 people have been evacuated and almost 3,000 are in hospital, mainly as a result of non-life threatening injuries and stress. Khabarovsk’s flooded homes are being evacuated.  Hydrologists are projecting the water will rise to the 830 centimeter mark by September 5.

The Amur River has started receding in some places along its mid-section, by between five centimetres and half a metre a day. Freezing cold will come in late September to the area where thousands of homes have been permanently damaged.

“We’ve been living in the attic for almost a month. The water is waist-deep inside the house and it’s impossible to stay there – it’s damp and mouldy everywhere,” Marina Maslova, who lives in the village of Vladimirovka, said despondently. “Today we applied for a place to stay in a hostel and hope to move to normal living conditions soon”.

People are being sheltered at resorts and in army barracks. Homes that can still be salvaged are being dried out with space heaters. Three hundred of these have already arrived from the government emergency fund and two thousand more are on the way. The equipment consumes a lot of power, so in an unprecedented move, the local authorities decided to cut the electricity bills of residents affected by the flood by a third.

The government of China’s province of Heilongjiang, on the other side of the river border, has offered help but the Russians have declined: their neighbours have been hit by natural disasters too; summer floods and hailstorms have affected 4.5 million people and resulted in 12 billion yuan worth of damage. Some 12 tonnes of international mail have piled up at the Customs at Heihe, because the Amur has submerged the cargo terminal. But the river has started receding and two freight barges made their way across the Amur for the first time on August 29, hauling equipment and three tonnes of mail over to the Russian side.

Meanwhile, in the Jewish Autonomous Region and the Khabarovsk Region, the waters keep rising.

The water near Khabarovsk is close to the 8-metre mark; normally, at the end of summer and in early autumn, it would hold at 4.5 metres. City residents, emergency workers and soldiers have installed 18 kilometres of levees, which they top up every day in an attempt to outpace the rebellious Amur.

The city’s island part has been nicknamed Venice of the Far East, as its streets have turned into canals filled with muddy, fast-flowing water. The governor personally pleaded with the residents to evacuate the threatened area but more than a hundred islanders have stubbornly remained in their flooded homes. They stocked up on cereals, sugar and ramen noodles. Emergency workers bring bread and drinking water by boat. High-rise apartment buildings have turned into communes of sorts, where people who live on the upper floor are letting their neighbours from lower floors into spare rooms in their apartments.

Retired Vladimir Nikolaevich has become a local celebrity. He has been fasting for days and praying for an end to the plight. He says that people should be grateful for the trials the higher powers send them. Whenever rescuers paddle to his house in a boat, he starts preaching to them with gusto from his rooftop.

Evacuations have started at Komsomolsk-na-Amure, the Far East’s industrial powerhouse. Nuclear submarines as well as military and civil medium-haul aircraft are built there. But it is levees that are being built there today.

Vladimir Putin has visited the submerged areas; he overflew the endless spread of water in a helicopter and talked to local residents. “We have never experienced a catastrophe on this scale before,” Putin said and instructed the Investigative Committee to check if officials’ actions during the flooding complied with the laws and regulations. He visited 20 evacuees at a temporary shelter. One of the city’s three thoroughfares was closed to make way for the presidential motorcade. Another was closed by the Amur, which eroded the highway in several places. As a result, traffic ground to a halt in half of Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000.

After the head of state’s visit to the flooded area, his special envoy to the Far East Federal District and Minister for Far East Development Viktor Ishaev was fired. Presidential aide Yuri Trutnev has become the new envoy. The Russian government will decide who will fill the ministerial post. According to official statements, the reshuffle had nothing to do with the flooding and the decision regarding Ishaev was made a month ago.

According to projections, the flood will peak at the Amur’s mouth in 15 to 20 days. The water will then take several weeks to recede. “The climate is changing and very vigorously at that. Global warming and human economic activity are having a tremendous impact on the environment. This includes building of hydro power plants and wildfires. Dams accumulate huge quantities of water in early summer and, after the water level rises naturally, heaps of water from reservoirs get dumped into the river,” Boris Voronov, Director of the Water and Environmental Problems Institute of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, explained the current situation. “Reservoirs are emptied not only on the Russian side. China also has dams and produces a huge impact on the water level in the Amur.”

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