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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Russian Disaster Worsens

From the Montreal Gazette

MOSCOW - The daily mortality rate in Moscow has doubled and morgues are filled almost to capacity amid an acrid smog caused by the worst heatwave in Russia's thousand-year history, officials said Monday.

The acknowledgment, which broke days of official silence on the toll, came after media reports accused authorities of covering up the scale of the disaster that has forced many Muscovities to flee the Russian capital.

The smog from the peat and forest fires burning in the countryside around 100 kilometres (60 miles) outside the city has choked Moscow for days and is seeping into apartments, offices and even underground into the metro. "In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700," the head of the city's health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, said in televised remarks. Out of 1,500 spaces in city morgues 1,300 were currently occupied, the state RIA Novosti news agency quoted Seltsovsky as saying.

Russia's top meteorological official, Alexander Frolov, said the heatwave was the most severe in the country's millenium-long history

"No similar heatwave has been observed neither by ourselves nor by our ancestors," he told a televised news conference. "This is a completely unique phenomenon."

More than 104,000 passengers — a record number for the current year — flew out of Moscow on Sunday, a spokesman for Russian state aviation agency Rosaviatsia, Sergei Izvolsky, told AFP. The figure for the same day a year ago stood at around 70,000 people, he said.

Many of those who stay pull white and blue gauze masks over their faces to protect themselves from the haze cloaking the city.

National media accused authorities of covering up the true scale of the environmental disaster and smog-related deaths and illnesses. A doctor with a Moscow ambulance crew told Russia's top opposition daily Novaya Gazeta on condition of anonymity that the number of ambulance calls and deaths had gone up in recent days. "We have been strictly forbidden to hospitalize people barring the most extreme cases," he said, complaining of hazardous working conditions.

A surgeon at a major hospital described a similar picture, saying the smog and heat were taking their toll on both patients and medical staff. "Air conditioners work only on the floor of the administration, temperatures reach 30 degrees in the operating room," he told Kommersant daily on condition of anonymity. "It's hard to work in these conditions."

Many Muscovites lay the blame for the environmental catastrophe on the government, which they say is not doing enough to shield them from the smog, and bloggers share survival tips ranging from producing oxygen at home to sleeping on the balcony.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 2.2 times higher than acceptable levels early Monday. "We are currently seeing a strong smoke," spokeswoman Elena Lezina told AFP. "Pollution is currently growing."

Weather forecasters say shifting winds are expected to help clear the air in the middle of the week, while the heatwave would continue for the next few days and subside by early next week.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu promised that the peat bog fires around Moscow would be put out in a week.

"Moscow, Muscovites, 11 million are so tired of this smoke, of this smog so we all need to join forces," he said in televised remarks.

Some 557 wildfires were still covering 174,000 hectares (430,000 acres) of land in Russia, only a slight improvement from the weekend, the emergency situations ministry said.

From the Financial Times:

Under a blazing sun, farmers were digging trenches in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday to stop wildfires in nearby forests and peat bogs from advancing on their land.

“It would take just one spark and this whole field would disappear in 15 minutes,” said Andrey Skoblikov, gesturing across a huge grain field at his farm at Larsha, 400km east of Moscow.

Mr Skoblikov, who gave up a career in the oil business for farming five years ago, is one of a new generation of Russian entrepreneurs who spotted the huge potential of his country’s neglected agricultural sector a few years ago. But after several bumper harvests an unprecedented heatwave and drought have scorched grain crops this year, driving many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. An uncontrollable wave of wildfires sweeping across European Russia is adding to farmers’ woes, threatening their land with destruction.

“This year we will be loss-making,” says Mr Skoblikov. “We spend all our time praying for rain.”

“Russia’s biggest resource is its land. We once fed the whole of Europe,” said Mr Skoblikov. Larsha, a dilapidated Soviet collective farm the two men bought in 2006, has been modernised under their management to produce grain, vegetables and milk. At least one-third of the grain crop at Larsha has been destroyed by the drought this year and the potato harvest, usually sold to the Russian army, wiped out altogether.

The fires are also taking a toll. Tractors that should now be ploughing land for sowing winter grain have been mobilised to dig trenches round fields to stop forest fires encroaching on farmland. Criticism has been mounting of the authorities’ handling of the wildfires which have killed at least 52 people and forced thousands to flee their homes.

Local authorities have called for vigilance, nailing lists of emergency instructions to trees at farms and urging people to “keep documents in an accessible, visible place”, in case it is necessary to flee.

Mr Skoblikov said he had been bombarded with requests for animal feed from drought stricken-local farmers, but had decided to sit on his stocks until prices stabilised.

Russia banned grain exports last week in a move to ease panic on domestic markets caused by the failing harvest. But in Nizhny Novgorod grain is still trading at high prices, forcing some small farmers to slaughter livestock. Nizhny Novgorod has been particularly badly hit by the deadly wildfires that have swept across European Russia in the past 10 days.

At least 20 people were killed when a high wind whipped up smouldering forest fires that destroyed three villages in the south of the region ten days ago.

Firefighters were battling at the weekend to douse fires in the north of the region that cloaked the town of Nizhny Novgorod, the regional capital, in smoke.

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