MOSCOW (AFP) – Russians in the Far East on Tuesday battled rising floodwaters as authorities evacuated more than 23,000 people and scrambled to prevent the outbreak of disease.
Heavy rains pounding Khabarovsk, a Far Eastern city located near the Chinese border, since July have swelled the local Amur River to nearly seven meters — a level unseen since monitoring of the area began in 1895.
The floodwaters damaged property, infrastructure and crops, displaced tens of thousands and raised fresh questions about the Russian government’s readiness to handle natural disasters.
There have been no reports of fatalities but more than 23,000 people have been evacuated so far, the office of the Kremlin’s Far Eastern envoy Viktor Ishayev said in a statement.
Television footage showed locals making their way through a flooded area by boat and a cow wading through muddy waters, submerged nearly up to its neck.
Locals complained that feces were finding their way into the water. “The saddest part is that we are being flooded in shit,” a local man said in televised remarks.
The floods have affected the Yakutia, Primorsky Krai and Amur and Khabarovsk regions as well as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
On Tuesday, the Amur river, which serves as a natural border with China where it is known as the Heilongiang river, has risen to 676 centimeters.
It is expected to rise by another 30-40 centimeters over the next two days.
“According to estimates, the water levels near Khabarovsk can reach 730-780 centimeters on August 24-28,” the Khabarovsk city administration said.
Yury Varakin, head of the situation center at Russia’s state weather service Rosgidromet, said the water levels around Khabarovsk reached a level unseen since regular monitoring began in 1895.
“The highest water level stood at 642 centimeters in 1897,” he told AFP.
“In many areas the river spread out over tens of kilometers. The unfavorable situation will remain until the end of the month.”
Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin discussed ramping up relief efforts along the border with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yang.
Wang and Rogozin agreed at talks in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin to strengthen joint efforts to deal with flooding along the Chinese-Russian border, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The Russian military have been deployed to help erect flood defense bunds along the Amur river, with authorities saying they have prepared 10,000 sandbags to use in case the waters breached the defenses.
Kremlin envoy Ishayev asked the General Prosecutor’s office to look into how the authorities have been handling the emergency.
“Residents in a number of areas say: ‘If you started a bit earlier then you’d have saved residential settlements.’ And they are right,” Ishayev said in televised remarks.
He indicated that some areas did not have proper infrastructure to help protect them against the floods.
Authorities said many in the affected areas had been left without access to money after Russia’s biggest bank Sberbank shut its branches and ATMs.
Of the more than 29,000 people who needed to be vaccinated, only 2,000 received shots even though the local authorities had enough vaccines against hepatitis A, diphtheria and typhoid fever, Ishayev’s office said.
The defense ministry sent an airlift carrying 20 tonnes of vaccines and medicine to the Far East, adding that it had vaccinated 2,000 servicemen involved in relief efforts.
On Tuesday the Magadan region also declared an emergency due to rising water levels.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said thousands of children will be unable to start school on time as some schools have been destroyed and others turned to shelters.
“What will the children be doing if they do not go to school?” he asked a government meeting.
The disaster comes a year after some 170 people perished in devastating floods that hit the town of Krymsk and its outlying areas in the southern Krasnodar region, with many people dying in their sleep.
Four officials including Krymsk’s former mayor are now standing trial on charges of criminal negligence.