St. Petersburg, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Of all the forces shaping Saint Petersburg's destiny, perhaps the greatest is water. It acts as a life-giving force as seen in the city's status as Russia's largest port, but also as a potentially destructive force when storms whip the Gulf of Finland.
Three times in the city's 300 year history -- in 1777, 1824, and 1924 -- it has been hit by particularly destructive floods. The flood of November, 1824 -- when the water level rose more than four meters above normal -- killed more than 200 people and destroyed more than 400 buildings.
Saint Petersburg governor Vladimir Yakovlev has recently called for efforts to complete a 20-year old project in order to prevent future floods. Yakovlev is pushing the federal government to hand over funds for the completion of the Flood Protection Barrier, which lies just off-shore in the Gulf of Finland, stretching from both sides of the mainland across the island of Kotlin on which the city-naval base of Kronstadt is located.
Last month, after the river Neva rose more than two meters above the norm, Yakovlev appealed to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov for completion of the barrier, which is little more than half-finished.
In a letter, Yakovlev wrote that "construction of the Flood Protection Barrier is in a critical state due to a lack of financing." He said that "the possibility of a catastrophic flood, which scientists have predicted, is quite strong."
The Barrier, construction on which started in 1979, currently stands about three meters above water level. The Barrier is not a single dam, but comprised of 11 dams that are separated by gates which let water flow in and out of the Neva delta. Plans call for it to eventually reach five meters above the normal water level.
The governor has asked Moscow for 953 million rubles (about $55 million) from the 1999 budget. If sufficient financing would continue regularly after that, the Barrier could be fully operational by 2004. However, in the 1998 budget, of 153 million rubles allocated, only 13 million were received.
The total cost estimate of completing the Barrier is $1 billion. Yet "Mor Zashita" (Sea Barrier), the organization in charge of the project, say $175 million would make it operational.
Vladimir Lesogorov, the head of Mor Zashita, told RFE/RL that at present it is impossible to protect the city, adding "the damage from a catastrophic flood would far outstrip the expenditures needed to complete the Barrier." He said that "a flood of just three meters would inundate the historic center of the city."
Such a devastating flood occurs once every 100 years, and according to Lesogorov, old manuscripts indicate that floods of up to seven meters have occurred in the region.
In the autumn, the city is routinely subjected to annual flooding, which is defined as a water level more than 1.6 meters above the mean Baltic Sea level.
Floods in Saint Petersburg have little to do with heavy rains. According to Lesogorov, local floods are caused by atmospheric cyclones, usually occurring in autumn, that typically move across the Baltic Sea from the southeast.
Backers of the Barrier say that aside from floods, there is another reason to complete the project. Viktor Shabalov, an engineer working on the Barrier, told RFE/RL that some of it has never been reinforced and could collapse into, and block, shipping lanes. This could paralyze Russia's largest port.
Indeed, some damage was sustained by this year's high waters.
Local support for the Barrier has not always been so strong as it is now. In the past, it was the subject of great public controversy.
In fact, construction on the Barrier was brought to a halt in the late 1980s by Russia's burgeoning democratic movement which assailed the project for inflicting environmental damage on the Gulf of Finland and the Neva delta.
However, an international commission in the early 1990s said that the Barrier did not present a significant ecological hazard.
Despite current local support for the project, Russia's severe financial problems mean that significant federal funding is unlikely in the near future. That leaves residents of Russia's second largest city hoping that the sea will not soon send a once in a century flood their way.