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Russia: New Standards Unlikely To Improve St. Petersburg's Water

St. Petersburg, 1 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is set to change its drinking water standards to meet international norms, but St. Petersburg residents can't really expect the notoriously murky liquid that spouts from the city's faucets suddenly to turn clear.

The city's Legislative Assembly is to vote tomorrow on the third and final reading of a law giving Vodokanal -- the city's water monopoly -- a go ahead to receive a 10-year, $73 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to upgrade its ancient water infrastructure. The goal is to bring St. Petersburg's drinking water supply in line with European standards.

However, the Moscow newspaper Kommersant Daily recently reported the results of tests by the Paris Department of Health. The show that achieving pure water will be difficult.

According to Kommersant Daily, the Paris Department of Health found that St. Petersburg's drinking water supply contains 500 times the acceptable levels of fenolam, 260 times acceptable levels of chloroform, 700 times the acceptable levels of micro-organisms, from double to triple the minimum world standard levels of salts and heavy metals, and 200 times the acceptable levels of the bacteria that causes dysentery. Moreover, one in every 20 test-tubes extracted from St. Petersburg's drinking water supply contained hepatitis A.

A government decree earlier this month announced Russia's new standards -- the first change in Russia's drinking water regime in 30 years.

Shortly after the new standards were announced, Victor Makharandin, the general director of Vodokanal, told St. Peterburgskiye Vedomosti, in his words: "Introducing the new standards in St. Petersburg in the near future is not possible. To do this we would need colossal funds."

The loan, to be guaranteed by the city's credit, would be disbursed to Vodokanal in two tranches and is to be applied from 1997 to 2001. In addition to guaranteeing the EBRD loan, the law also spells out a reform and development program for Vodokanal, including water purification to European Union standards and the installation of meters to determine how much water is actually being used by customers.

Foreign visitors to St. Petersburg invariably are warned about the hazards of drinking the city's tap water. The Fresh Guide to St. Petersburg, published in 1993, puts it this way: "The most heinous perpetrator of guttural agony is the water contaminated with giardia lamblia, a nasty little protozoan which will keep you chained to the WC as well as weak in pain."