Emergency services have improved in Russia, but the country has yet to address what must be done to ensure the survival of the planet
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova is a founder of Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center and the Russian community school movement, and has lived in Siberia since 1992. She is currently working on a book about the transition 1988-1994 (hers and Perestroika to democracy). This is an edited version of “The Flood: A tree is best measured when it is down”, which originally appeared at Medium
At 8 PM on March 28th, Russia joined 172 other countries and territories celebrating Earth Hour. Landmark buildings around the world went dark for an hour to draw attention to climate change and promote reduced energy use. In 2015 this provided a rare moment of agreement between Russia and the West and a reminder that beyond the western stereotype that “everything in Russia is awful and it is Putin’s fault” there is reality. That reality, as it relates to all countries, is increasingly exposed by extreme weather events. As the frequency and ferocity of natural disasters increases, so does the importance of government performance in relation to the efficacy of the response and support available to those impacted by the storm. While climate change has yet to become a key voter issue, we have seen recognition in America by elected officials that their future political careers may depend on their competence and capacity to deliver during these critical times of need. Does the government of Vladimir Putin deliver when it comes to meeting the needs of people under the most extreme circumstances? Do we see evidence that elections in Russia increase the incentive for elected officials to respond in a timely and competent manner to natural disasters? Three Russian floods provide some insight, one of them this author experienced first hand and the government response proved as unexpected as the flood itself.
Background: Two Floods
2012: Southern Russia
The Krasnodar Flood could be characterized as Russia’s Katrina because of the tragic consequences of government failure before, during and after the waters struck. Two days of rain preceded a deluge that began on July 6, 2012 in Krasnodar Krai, a Southern Russian region located on the Black Sea. When it ended, in the early hours of the 7th , the equivalent of 5 months precipitation had fallen and neither man nor nature were prepared for absorbing this blow. Tragically, the tipping point came at night when a flash flood appeared at 10PM cresting at 2AM with a height of 23 ft (7 m) catching, primarily, the inhabitants of 3 towns while they slept. Officials reported 172 people killed, many trapped in their single story homes when the water roared in up to the ceilings. 5,200 homes were destroyed or damaged and 34,000 overall were directly impacted by the disaster.
General skepticism of local and regional government had long been simmering in the region. Krasnodar was considered one of the most tightly controlled regions in Russia. This control and skepticism intensified when it was chosen to host the 2014 Sochi Olympics. On the national level, opposition parties and activists, recently invigorated by marches in Moscow protesting the re-election of Putin, did not hesitate to politicize the situation. (1) As a result the tragedy and its aftermath became a key development moment for civil society demonstrating its willingness and ability to participate in disaster relief efforts and hold government accountable.
President Putin arrived July 7th, declared a day of mourning and a program for compensating victims ($3,000 for homes that were destroyed and $1,500 for those that were partially damaged). Still, the government response to provide immediate needs for those who were permanently or temporarily homeless and liquidating the after-effects was not sufficient. This provided an opportunity for NGOs, volunteers and donations to fill the gap, which they did with 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid and 2,500 volunteers coming from all over Russia.
The most vehement anger remained focused on culpability for the deaths. Rumors circulated blaming the government for opening reservoir sluice gates but no evidence of that was ever found. More salient were charges that in Krymsk, home to 160 victims, local government was aware of the rapidly rising water and yet their efforts to warn people with the use of sirens and loudspeakers were grossly inadequate since most people were sleeping. Ultimately, three local government officials and head of the district department for emergency warning and civil defense were charged with criminal negligence “improper performance of their official duties due to negligent attitude to service that resulted in the death of more than two persons”. A little more than a year after the flood all four were found guilty, 3 were given prison sentences and the 4th a suspended sentence. Whether criminally negligent or scapegoats for the Governor, Alexander Tkachev who in March had begun his second appointed term after 2 elected terms, it was certainly a warning to regional and local government that more was expected. Political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky was more succinct, “It seems that Putin is not a ‘Teflon president’, He got away with Kursk, he got away with Beslan, but it seems he’s not getting away very smoothly with Krymsk.” (2)
2013: Far East
The 2013 flooding that took place in the Russian Far East was a more global and sustained event. Heavy rains fell from mid- August through September causing the Amur River to reach levels unknown for 115 years. Meteorologists cited several contributing factors for the record -breaking precipitation and high waters: an abnormal change in air circulation, a snowy winter followed by a late spring, forest fires and logging eliminating trees that retain moisture. Five Russian regions were hit covering a territory comparable to Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. (3) Putin arrived on August 29th to announce a mobilization effort to help those already underwater, keep as many towns as possible dry and repair damage to personal property and public infrastructure. This included calling on the Army to supplement the work of 13,000 emergency services personnel and volunteers. The critical role played by volunteers was codified in the protocol for a meeting of the Federal level Ministry for the Development of the Far East. (4) Before it was over 32,000 people had to be evacuated and 4,000 homes and 190,000 residents in 235 villages or small towns suffered some form of property damage. The response did help 120 towns avoid flood damage. On the Chinese side of the Amur the flood killed 200 people, on the Russian side, no one died.
The Government promised the same level of compensation for damaged or lost homes as in Krasnodar and organized the distribution of vaccines because of heightened concerns about disease. A 10 hour TV fundraising marathon was held on Channel 1 (the most influential state channel) to generate awareness and organize public support. This was a first for disaster relief in Russia and collected almost $16 million for housing. The national Red Cross continued its role as the primary NGO conduit for relief but a local foundation provided an alternative for those interested in more targeted funding and clarity on how their money was being used.
Throughout 2014 government compensation to flood victims was distributed and amounted to 40 billion rubles ($1,133,000,000). This provided money to cover harvest and material losses, new homes for those who lost them and capital repairs to the houses still standing. These enormous unexpected costs so soon after the Krasnodar flood inspired Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to take action. It is estimated that only 5% of Russian homeowners have private insurance and most of them are in the big cities. He asked the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank to prepare a proposal that would establish a system of compulsory insurance to cover “damage caused by fire, flood or other natural disasters". The initial proposal was rejected on the grounds that the civil code and Constitution prohibited mandatory insurance. Medvedev asked them to find ways that the government, together with insurance companies, can address the issue in accordance with the law. (5) The problem was still in need of a solution when the next flood struck less than 6 months later.
Manzherok, Altai Republic
May 30, 2014. It began with a phone call from Nadya, our “dacha” neighbor in Manzherok. “The river is rising fast” was all it took for us to start the 450 km drive down from Novosibirsk. Nadya continued to report in until the cell phone connection went dead with “vse plokho, vse plokho” (everything is bad, everything is bad). We choose to build on the river knowing this involved risk as people still talked about the flood that happened 45 years ago. However, in 1969 the Katyn breached its banks during the annual mountain spring snow melt, “korennaya voda”, that was still weeks away, this was something different. The official version was a month of rain in 4 days that caused the Katyn, along with other local rivers and their tributaries to explode. The Head of the Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency attributed this to abnormal changes in the circulation of air masses over Southern Siberia and the Russian Far East and warned this condition may become permanent and, although less dramatic, 2014 did bring more flooding in the Far East. (6) There were numerous other explanations for the flood including an illegal lake allegedly owned by a member of the Moscow ruling elite, “ an overvoltage of nature” that according to an Altai Shaman “occurs in nature so it cleans itself. Too many hotels have been built too close to the Katyn River and there is a lot of garbage. Nature decided to get rid of everything that was unnecessary” and the wrath of Princess Ukok the Siberian Ice Maiden, a 5th century BC mummy that is believed to have “guarded the gates of the underworld keeping out the monsters that feed on people’s fears and destroy the existence of harmony” until she was unburied and placed in a museum.(7)
While the reason(s) for the flood were a controversial issue, lack of government warning was not. Overall there were 2 confirmed flood related casualties in the Republic. These occurred on May 29, just as the Katyn River was starting to rise and a truck carrying three people attempting to evacuate turned over into the river and only one of them made it to safety. (8) When we arrived our house was surrounded by the Katyn and inaccessible so we were forced to join the village natives with one story homes and leave the fate of our property to nature. A couple of newcomers with second story homes decided to ride it out. During the 3 nights and two days before the water started to recede, emergency services personnel paddled by to check on them and were available should evacuation become necessary. It didn’t and when we were all able to return to our sludge-filled homes, it turned out we were the only ones with insurance. We assumed that even if government help was available, the effort and time involved to get it would supersede any possible gain. We were wrong.
On the first day of clean-up the Mayor appeared at our house with what turned out to be a damage assessment commission. Later that day a doctor and nurse arrived with chemicals to treat the water and medicine. They promised to check in every other day and left a number to call if we felt sick. Houses with residents officially registered in Manzherok received rations of water and food along with the news there would be an immediate payout of $330 for each registered person AND, based on the Commission’s recommendation, an additional $1,600 for partially damaged or $3,200 totally damaged for each person to cover household items and clothing lost. This level of compensation corresponded to what flood victims in Krasnodar and the Far East received and turned out to be faster and, for those who later also received funding for capital repairs, more generous than what we ultimately received from our private insurance company. Our neighbor was informed by the government that if she wanted to receive a new house she would have to agree to declare her current house a total loss (one step down from totally damaged) and forfeit her property. The new house would be located in a non-flood zone area. This was good, responsible government policy, she declined and applied for the $167 per square meter capital repair compensation (9) while we ended up with less than $71 per square meter which meant we were basically getting back the money we had spent on insurance over the last 10 years. Villagers were curious, assuming we were going to make a “killing”, so our neighbor was asked to report back and let people know if insurance was something they should consider. 22 years after the birth of capitalism a real opportunity for the private sector to sell itself to the people of Russia was lost.
The most surprising result of the flood was a pile of wood 3 meters high that now surrounded our house on three sides and can best be described as looking like what a Tsunami leaves behind. We ignored it until a group of men from emergency services appeared to clean up the neighbors Tsunami of wood on day 5. Apart from the electric saw the equipment they were using was homemade primitive but by the end of the day her property was clear. The Mayor was there and told us he requested help from emergency services but he did not know how daily work orders were decided, what the criteria was to be a priority. Nothing about this process was open or transparent, there was no information about whether there was a clean-up list or how to get on it if there was one. The brigade did arrive to help us the next morning. It was composed mostly of young men ages 18 to 23. Teams from all over Russia were brought in to help with the flood so some of this gang were emergency services personnel from Novosibirsk, the rest were kids serving their obligatory one year Army service. The informational aspect of disaster clean-up was a disaster, but, a week after the flood waters were gone emergency services had cleaned up the entire riverfront and all properties on it.
It turned out that a large number of children living in Manzherok were not registered as residents of the Village. Since government compensation for immediate needs was allocated per capita, a lot of people were angry. In this instance not only was information about the procedure for applying to the court for recognition as a disaster victim readily available, the local administration made every effort to outreach to everyone they felt merited the support, including us. It was soon obvious that encouraging people with honest claims to apply was good economic policy, it provided an enormous economic stimulus package to one of the poorest regions in the country. This money made it possible for some villagers to achieve a quality of life that would not have been attainable otherwise. The last two families on my street without indoor plumbing were able to put in wells eliminating the need to haul water and neighborhood improvement will generate increased revenue by attracting more tourists.
There was one other very rational reason for such a comprehensive disaster program and efforts to conduct it with a degree of efficiency I have not seen living in Russia for 22 years. It was an election year for Governor of the Republic and there was a serious challenger to the incumbent, Alexander Berdnikov (a representative of United Russia, the party of power). Berdnikov had never actually won an election before. His previous two 4 year terms were under the auspices of a procedure introduced by President Putin in 2006 that eliminated direct gubernatorial elections in the regions. Candidates nominated by Moscow were confirmed by the regional Duma. Things were not looking good for the United Russia candidate in what was to be a revival of the public Gubernatorial elections in Altai. There was talk that he would not receive the 51% required to avoid a second round of voting. This was of particular concern in Moscow because in April United Russia lost the Mayoral election in Novosibirsk City (the 3rd largest city in Russia) to a Communist despite the considerable administrative resources available to his United Russia opponent. Seven of an eligible 69 parties in Altai put forward candidates that could easily split the vote in such a way to deny a first round victory. Berdnikov did everything one would expect for a candidate in a tight race from attracting large amounts of federal disaster relief money, to conducting town meetings.
In July we joined our neighbors applying to the court for recognition as disaster victims but my hopes, based on election year pandering and encouragement by the local administration, were tempered by the broader and more complex geopolitical environment. All of this was happening in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. I was concerned about the subsequent economic impact of western attitudes and sanctions against Russia that went into overdrive with the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight #17. This could either be the perfect excuse for cutting short the relief program, or, the biggest reason to fully fund it. A missing checkmark on the commission documents made it necessary for the judge to require two court procedures. The decision making process was further delayed when we received a call that the judge was “sick”. Still, at the end of August, with the Mayor vigorously testifying on our behalf, we were recognized as community member disaster victims. The law specified payment 30 days after the court judgment, the end of September.
Our high level of confidence in the government disaster relief program was reinforced when President Putin arrived several days after our court date to conduct a meeting for the regional leaders affected by our flood and the Far East. The speech was exactly what you wanted to hear from the President acknowledging that regional and federal money was not moving fast enough…
“…hope that the lessons learned in 2013…made it possible to avoid serious consequences”
“here in Siberia the weather also taught us another important lesson: 250 towns and villages were flooded. More than 80,000 people were affected by the floods….28.3 thousand garden plots, 6.5 thousand hectares of agricultural crops, 403 kilometers of power lines and over 140 social facilities damaged, 4.2 thousand head of cattle and 9.5 thousand birds were killed, 4,678 people were provided temporary accommodation..”
“We need to rule out any red tape, specifically when we are helping people.”
Putin also talked about the future including developing insurance mechanisms and providing oversight so that no more “capital construction on flood prone territories without special flood prevention measures being taken first.” (10) It took three floods in three years, but they provided lessons learned for the parameters of a national disaster policy.
Throughout the next 4 months allot of things happened. The sitting Governor was elected with .63% or 533 votes more than the 50% required to avoid a run-off. This was not a convincing result for his key opponent who appealed and lost first to the Supreme Court of the Altai Republic and then Russian Federation. (11) The initial Minsk Protocol was signed to bring a ceasefire in Ukraine that never happened, Western sanctions were ratcheted up to include major Russian banks and oil companies. The exchange rate went from 30 to 72 rubles per dollar before settling at 60, the inflation rate jumped from 7.6 to 9.1% and, most importantly for Russia, the price of oil plummeted from $100 a barrel to around $55. One thing that did not happen was disaster relief payment so even if, best case scenario, we actually got the money, it was going to buy less. During this period Hurricane Sandy celebrated it’s 2nd anniversary and news reports were filled with stories about homeowners still homeless or yet to be fully compensated by government agencies or insurance companies backed by the government while the government was busy clawing back millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. This provided both solace and warning.
On December 26, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree authorizing the relief money with orders for it to be in the hands of victims by the New Year. It was a happy New Year for everyone but us. After the 10 day official holiday we found out our money could not be transferred to a bank account outside the region. Reasonable, good policy but again, a problem with information dissemination that was aggravated by a simple mistake. Our money (cash) had been transported to the main regional post office where it would sit for several days. For a reason never made clear, we would have to wait three days for the next scheduled post office delivery to Manzherok to get our money rather than the 42 minutes it would take to drive and pick it up. Our money missed the Monday delivery because a woman in the social services department had forgotten to send the list to the post office. There was an upside to this madness. During the three days it took the post office van to travel 32 kilometers we discovered there was no deadline for making capital repair claims and we were eligible. So that’s where we are now, documents have been submitted and approved, we are, once again, waiting for money as an unusually snowy winter threatens to produce a spring thaw of epic proportions unless less angry Gods or forces of nature gift us with a gradual snow melt and no heavy rains.
Conclusion: Disaster Relief in Putin’s Russia
How responsive has the Russian government been to extreme weather events?. Emergency services demonstrated notable improvement before, during and after flood #3. With regard to financial assistance to victims, in Altai the primary implementation weakness was informational but the existing program is not sustainable. After over a year of judicial and legislative effort Medvedev produced what the government hopes will solve this problem. On February 27, 2015 the Russian Duma passed Law #694881-6 “On Changes to legislation to bring order to mechanisms providing citizens help in restoring (or replacing) property lost as a result of fires, floods and other natural disasters.” (12) It echoes American public-private solutions by phasing in a system that will provide support for those who have insurance that will be affordable on the basis of government subsidies. There are no magic bullets so managing expectations for victims in the future is critical knowing that some people aren’t going to be satisfied no matter how much the government does to help. In Russia this goes beyond addressing technical problems associated with information dissemination and implementation. There needs to be public discussion about the new law to facilitate a shift in attitude towards a shared responsibility. There are hopeful signs of progress. Less than a month after the new law neighbors were talking about the insurance program and their plans to join because it was affordable and they understood that if they do not, there will be limited government financial assistance. Just as the Russian program was launched reports on serious corruption related to compensation for 2013 Hurricane Sandy victims in America surfaced. This is a reminder of greater challenges ahead as establishing this program in Russia will require rigorous and, so far, illusive methods to combat this scourge that has attached itself to many aspects of life.
The practice of individual and private organizations donating to help has become an institutionalized element in disaster response. Over 45 million rubles was donated to the flood victims in the Altai Republic. (13) There was less of an NGO, volunteer component to the recovery in Altai than was evidenced in the previous two floods. One reason for that may be the absence of local NGOs with the capacity and desire to play this role. It may also be a reflection of the downside to government emergency services doing such a good job. People assumed there was no need. Based on the accumulated experience government and NGOs should work together on a comprehensive guide to best practices and recommendations for how to mobilize and use volunteers after a disaster. This project would also strengthen their partnership because in Russia, more work needs to be done to get government comfortable with citizen participation. There was a degree of blowback after the enormous role played by volunteers in Krasnodar. Some issues raised were valid, who is responsible if a volunteer is injured or killed, others were rooted in a desire to control everything. Thus, promoting the concept of shared responsibility extends to government officials as well as the public.
There is no evidence that his flood performance influenced positively or negatively the controversial election of the sitting Governor. That said, it did not hurt that a popular President came, along with all affected governors, and conducted the flood review meeting in the Republic nine days before the election. That and the town hall meetings demonstrate politicians in power recognize the possible impact of disaster relief performance on public support. It is too soon to judge if these concerns will lead to substantive action to mitigate the effect of future floods and enforce existing laws prohibiting new construction in flood zones. There was a positive indicator in Manzherok, the speed a washed out road was rebuilt and the addition of a large drainage pipe underneath to keep a stream from flooding the road as it flows into the river.
The most complicated question of all for Russia is how these disasters will influence actions related to climate change. Since the Russian economy is so dependent on its fossil fuel industry, we are faced with the irony of a robust financial response to extreme weather events that is funded by proceeds generated by selling what is at least in part responsible for them happening. It should not be surprising that so far there is no evidence these three floods have done anything to inspire a more serious debate focused on what Russia plans to do about its contribution to greenhouse gases. The dichotomy is described by Drs. Maria Sharmina and Christopher Jones in a January 2015 article titled “Discounting the future of climate change in Russia: Like it or not, global warming will affect Russia, and ignoring it only stores up problems for later”. They write, “The government has taken a few steps towards a lower-carbon future: it has signed up to the global 2°C emissions pledge and adopted the Climate Doctrine and the Renewable Energy Decree. However, Russia’s other policies contradict its climate change commitments, including generous subsidies for the production of fossil fuels. In this sense, the left hand does not want to know what the right hand is doing.” (14) I think all hands know what the other is doing and despite record breaking weather around the country this winter, for the time being, the strategy is to sell as much oil and gas as possible while mitigating and responding more effectively to the consequences of climate change.
Russia is certainly not the only country trying to square this circle. There is a civilizational choice to make.
I do not mean the dangerous civilizational choice as in the propaganda tool used to get Ukraine to choose Russia or the European Union, a choice that the laws of geography, history and common sense rebel against. This is the real thing, the ultimate civilizational choice facing all countries, will we do what must be done to ensure the survival of the planet? Is it possible to put all differences aside and channel our greed, ambition and desire towards one common, positive goal? Does the type of inspired leadership that focused our competitive urges on a race to the moon exist today? While these questions go unanswered nature is the one establishing common ground. Boston, USA (108.62 in.) and Blagoveshinsk, Russia (still snowing) just broke their seasonal snowfall records while Capracotta , Italy broke the world record for one day snowfall in 18 hours (100.8 inches/256 centimeters). In the meantime, the United States Congress continues to find ways to make the Keystone Pipeline a reality and President Putin and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, agreed in November to make the western or “Altai” pipeline through the Plateau Ukok a priority, so we continue to not only risk the wrath of mother nature, but Princess Ukok. (15)
References and Notes
Russia Behind the Headlines: http://rbth.com/society/2013/08/21/flood_covers_thousands_of_miles_of_russian_far_east_29103.html
Calculated at the rate of 30 rubles per $1