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Russia Fights Fires, Looks Ahead To Long-Term Costs Of Heat Wave

Russia is facing the worst harvest in recent memory.
Russia is facing the worst harvest in recent memory.
By Khamida Gayfullina and Daisy Sindelar
ZAVYALOVO, Udmurt Republic -- Farid Valitov, the head of a large farm in this Volga district republic, stands in the middle of a field filled with wilting stalks of feed corn.

Pulling one from the parched ground, he looks dejectedly at its stunted roots and says this summer's record-breaking heat wave will have dire consequences for his farm and livestock.

"There's nothing here. Rain wouldn't even help at this point. There won't be any food to feed the animals," says Valitov, who tends more than 800 cows and 1,700 other animals on his farm. "We're trying to find as much hay for them as we can. As of today, we're about 60 percent short on feed, so we'll have to cull almost half our livestock. It's going to be a hard winter. Our farm has already lost 41 million rubles."

It's a familiar refrain throughout Russia and many of the former Soviet republics, where weeks of extreme weather -- most notably heat and drought, but also flooding and windstorms -- have killed crops and dramatically cut harvest forecasts.

Deadly Blazes

In Russia, the unrelenting heat -- with temperatures reaching as high as 39 degrees Celsius -- has caused more immediate challenges. Most notably, it has sparked dozens of massive forest fires that have destroyed hundreds of houses and killed at least 34 people in a number of Russian regions, including the Moscow suburbs.

"There are nearly 150 fires a day," said Igor Vlaznev, the head of a firefighting unit in the Voronezh region some 500 kilometers south of Moscow, in an interview with Reuters. "All of them are caused by dry grass, dry forests. The fires spread through villages, farms, agricultural fields."

The Kremlin says the cost of fire damage could soar into the billions of rubles. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, consoling residents in the fire-ravaged Nizhny Novgorod region, has pledged to reconstruct all destroyed homes by winter.

A woman sits surrounded by the remains of her home in the Russian village of Mokhovoye on July 31.
But even if the government makes good on its promise to rebuild lost homes, it faces innumerable other challenges as a result of the hottest temperatures on record in 130 years.

Some 2,000 people have drowned this summer seeking respite from the oppressive temperatures. And growing numbers of people -- many of them nursing-home residents or prisoners kept in stifling conditions -- are reportedly dying as a result of the heat.

Russian officials have refused to release statistics on how many people may have died as a result of heat exhaustion, and journalists have reported being turned away from hospitals reluctant to discuss the human cost of the extreme weather.

The growing crisis -- reminiscent of the 2003 heat wave in Western Europe, which caused the death of 15,000 mainly elderly people in France alone -- may present the Kremlin with uncomfortable questions as the broader consequences of the heat wave become clear.

Grim Harvest

There is also the looming reality that the country is facing one of the worst harvests in recent memory. Authorities have acknowledged that yields of the country's most significant crop, wheat, will drop dramatically this year. Russian grain producers have forecast a 20 percent drop in the nation's grain harvest, a dip that may force officials to cut back lucrative wheat exports by as much as half, from 18 million tons to 9.5 million.

The slimmed-down export forecasts for Russia -- one of the world's biggest wheat exporters -- have sent global wheat prices soaring and proved a boon for American wheat suppliers, prompting at least one disgruntled Russian academic to speculate that his country's heat wave had been masterminded by the Pentagon.

Indeed, some of the temperatures have been so extreme it's easy to see why conspiracy theories about Western climate-tampering could readily gain currency. Siberian outposts that have recorded some of the world's coldest temperatures are now experiencing protracted bouts of 32-degree weather. In the central Kirov region, temperatures have edged towards a baking 50 degrees.
Farid Valitov (left) says the drought will have dire consequences for his farm.


Mansur Nasipov heads the Kalinino agrofirm in the Kirov town of Malmyzh, says if things continue the way they are, "no one will be left alive" at the region's collective farms.

"Today the temperature here is 47 degrees," he said. "Everything has simply dried up. There's not a patch of green anywhere. Not a single gram of water is left in our well. In the morning it's possible to draw three or four buckets, but after that there's no water."

Price Hikes?

A state of emergency has been declared in 23 regions because of the drought, with conservative estimates stating that the dry spell has already devastated nearly one-fifth of all farmland. The crisis has inevitably prompted fear of price hikes as grains for bread and feed grows scarce.

The Kremlin appears determined to fight off the bugbear of higher food prices and the political liability they represent. Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who heads a working group tasked with monitoring the consequences drought, has confidently stated there will be no food shortage and that fears of price hikes have "no economic foundation."

But some are skeptical. "I think we can expect prices to go up," says Ruslan Grinberg, the director of the economic institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's clear that the authorities should always radiate optimism, and it's clear that the deputy prime minister belongs to the optimists' camp. Our citizens understand that if there's less of something -- if grain yields go down -- then it will get more expensive."

Lost Exports

That fear of price hikes has spread to other wheat-growing countries in the region -- notably Ukraine, where Prime Minister Mykola Azarov today said his country had sufficient grain reserves to prevent any rise in bread prices.

Ukrainian crops have been alternately battered by floods and drought during the summer months, and last year's wheat harvest of nearly 21 million tons could drop to 18 million or even lower.

Customs officials in Kyiv have imposed new controls on wheat exports in the face of the weak harvest, with international grain experts predicting Ukraine's wheat exports will dip from 9.3 million tons to 6.8 million. (Another of the region's major grain producers, Kazakhstan, will see a smaller drop from 7.8 million tons to 7 million.)

Ukrainian officials, however, remain bullish, with Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk conceding that grain production has slowed but nonetheless offering an outsize prediction for the country's export volume, saying Ukraine would export "16 to 17 million tons" of grain this year.

New Reality

The long-reaching consequences of the long, hot summer of 2010 have prompted speculation that Russia and its neighbors may be forced to acknowledge the growing issue of climate change, which so far has gained little political traction in the Kremlin or elsewhere.

Belarus has experienced its own volatile season of oppressive heat -- with temperatures holding steady at 30-35 degrees -- and fierce windstorms that left much of the country without electrical power. Like Ukraine and Russia, it is facing its own diminished harvest, with officials reporting failing potato, sugar beet, and corn crops because of the dry conditions.

The heat wave has been so intense it has forced authorities in Minsk to drop a ban on window air conditioners, which had been deemed too unsightly for the capital city.

Dzmitry Martsinkevich, an air-conditioner supplier, suggests authorities are accepting the fact there may be many hot summers to come.

"People are having a hard time. Food is going bad, the elderly are experiencing fainting spells," he says. Air conditioners, he adds, "are no longer a luxury but a necessity. The main thing is for these stores and businesses not to wait until summer -- not to wait until the chocolate starts melting or the jars start popping. You have to be prepared."

RFE/RL's Belarus, Russian, Tatar-Bashkir, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report

Daisy Sindelar

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix, AZ, U.S.A.
July 30, 2010 16:20
Just like in the US, a good global warming scare is the greatest opportunity to start piling on taxes for whatever they fancy.

by: Mark
July 31, 2010 11:08
Natural disasters are good for Russia, they play important roll in destabilizing the regime and stirring social unrest. The more - the merrier!
In Response

by: snow-russia from: siberia
July 31, 2010 14:43
it is stupid to wish disaster to other people and u will find out this soon....
In Response

by: Mark
July 31, 2010 19:08
I don't wish it for the people, I wish it to the regime, if natural disasters is what needed to take down Medveputin and the KGB, so be it.

As General Denikin said: "With the devil, but against the Bolsheviks, for Russis!"
In Response

by: Bart
August 02, 2010 00:05
Suffering never unseats a government. Especially not in Russia.
In Response

by: Mark
August 04, 2010 09:38
You are bitterly mistaken my friend. Natural disasters ALONE, don't do anything, BUT they do create a certain mood which can rapidly deteriorate into social upheaval (especially when so many other things are bad..)

Check with almost any historian of the USSR, and you'll be surprised at the number of natural and unnatural disasters that had taken place prior to the collapse.
In Response

by: Bart
August 04, 2010 22:27
I think you are the mistaken one. Revolutions always end in the moderates being killed (for example, the Ayatollah had the leftists murdered when the regime took power). Who do you think will get people back in their homes in chaos? I would not wish that one anyone, but apparently you do.
In Response

by: Bart
August 02, 2010 00:09
I should add that under Gorbachev, Russians were suffering less than at any time in their history. Even when waiting in the breadlines, they still had more food than they have today.

by: Rev, Daniel W. Blair from: Round Rock, TX USA
July 31, 2010 15:59
The oil spills, hurricanes, and the global heat wave have many searching for answers. The internet is buzzing with articles and excellent blogs. But could it be simply the biblical sequence of God's wrath being poured out upon the earth which is relevant to current events in today's world. What if we are dealing with the wrath of God? Please understand the wrath of God is letting man slip deeper and deeper into the consequences of his own sin. Please visit my website at http://www.revelation-truth.org . Rev. Daniel W. Blair author of the book Final Warning
In Response

by: Seyran from: Armenia
August 01, 2010 05:48
This has nothing to do with God, this has to do with the damage international cooperations, money-starving people in power, and regular stupid people have done to our world. The worst of all is that people who has nothing to do with it nor are guilty of anything are the ones who suffer the most, and the ones who get all the consequences. Please, stop with your useless campaign of "the end is close", "the Book of Revelations warned us", all of that is done with one single purpose by all those so-called authors...get money out of the pockets of silly people.

If you want to make something about it you better start reading ways to eliminate environmental contamination from your own house and start planting trees. This has nothing to do with God, this has to do with us and we are the only ones who can make something about it.
In Response

by: Bart
August 02, 2010 00:14
Russia has most of the world's CO2 locked up in its permafrost. The consequences of this is that the deserts are moving northward. That is why you see the wetlands drying up all over the South Caucasus. Desertification is accelerating there.
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
August 03, 2010 23:29
Why don't evangelists worry more about Gods creature, The Nature.
I think some of them are to much involved in material things, that have nothing to do with the Bible. Everybody knows what happened to ancient Rome !!!
Rome expanded its military around the world ( Like USA today).
Rome imported young immigrants to do the work of the aging population
( Like USA today). Rome supported young immigrant women to have many babies (Like USA today) And finally people of Rome woke up, but it was to late . Foreigners had taken over the great empire of Rome !!!

by: Phil from: USA
July 31, 2010 19:16
Seriously? you are going to pander some books on a blog that is talking about a serious climate issue? it is your rigth to express your opinion that it is the wrath of God that is causing the heatwave in Russia, but I personally draw the line with your electronic proseletyzing.

by: Jimmy from Sun Prairie from: Wisconsin USA
August 01, 2010 00:00
Does Russia have enough growing degree days (GDDS) to grow and mature corn?

by: Jimmy from Sun Prairie from: Wisconsin USA
August 01, 2010 00:14
Also another question, what day was the picture of corn field taken? May, June, July ? or is this a stock photo?

by: john anderson from: dallas, tx, usa
August 01, 2010 16:58
as they say in new orleans--''it's not the heat, it's the stupidity''; but, here it dallas, tx, it's the heat, and the humidity, plus the stupidity. we have ignored the consequences of global warming for over 30 years....what else should we expect but disaster upon disaster around the world? blame humans, not deities, for our own problems, and accept resposibility for the inevitable results of our inaction.

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