The world is ablaze. June has shaped up to be the hottest month on record in Europe, bringing a record-breaking heatwave to France and forest fires in Germany and Turkey. These abnormal, or probably new normal, weather conditions also made headlines in Russia; on June 29, a massive flood swept through the Irkutsk Region in Siberia, inundating over 30 settlements, destroying 3,500 houses, and leaving thousands homeless. Regional governor Sergey Levchenko, citing Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, recently said that 18 people have been killed.
Shocking images emerged from the towns of Tulun and Nizhneudinsk, where some apartment blocks were flooded up to the third floor. Satellite imagery from Russia’s space agency Roskosmos soon followed, showing the staggering geographic extent of the flood:
Роскосмос продолжает съемку Иркутской области
Снимки были получены от космических аппаратов дистанционного зондирования Земли «Канопус-В». Съемка региона со спутников проводится несколько раз в сутки, после чего фотографии передаются в Центр управления в кризисных ситуациях МЧС pic.twitter.com/whYnbCrQ9y
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) July 2, 2019
Roskosmos continues to take pictures of the Irkutsk Region
These images were received from the Kanopus-V remote Earth sensing satellite. These image of the region are being taken by the satellite several times a day, and are then given to the Ministry of Emergency Situations’ Center for Managing Crisis Situations
Tulun and Nizhneudinsk lie on the Iya and Uda rivers, tributaries of the Angara River, which flows from Lake Baikal into the River Yenisei. When these rivers burst their banks, major road links to surrounding provinces were immediately cut off.
With the river levels slowly subsiding, volunteers and emergency services have regained access.
The extent of the destruction is serious: Levchenko announced on Wednesday that damages came to 29 billion rubles (around 450 million US dollars). The governor had recently told Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper, that 980 million rubles (15 million US dollars) had been allocated to compensating residents for loss of these properties, though there is some scepticism that these promises will be fulfilled.
Over the past week, a heated debate has erupted on the Russian-speaking internet about what—or who—was responsible for the flood. Some commentators aren’t taking “natural disaster” as an answer.
The authorities, local and federal, bore the brunt of much initial criticism. President Vladimir Putin headed back from Japan, where he had been attending the G20 summit, and held an emergency meeting in the nearby town of Bratsk on July 30. When pro-government news site Gazeta.ru reported that water levels had dropped after Putin’s visit, it received a wave of angry commentary from users who felt the pro-government media had ignored the crisis from the start.
В Иркутской области какое-то пиздецовое наводнение, затопленно несколько населённых пунктов, люди сидят на крышах. А по телеканалам только Путин, Трамп и Япония pic.twitter.com/WABT2npPaD
— Сталингулаг (@StalinGulag) June 29, 2019
There are some fucked up floods in the Irkutsk Region right now, several settlements have been flooded, people are sitting on their roofs. And all that’s on the television channels is Putin, Trump, and Japan.
— СталинГулаг (@StalinGulag) 29 июня 2019
Russian media reports from the region reveal that locals are perplexed and trying to make sense of why the authorities seemed so poorly prepared—governor Levchenko even said that he hadn’t been warned about the likelihood of flooding. A flood constructed built after heavy floods struck Tulun in 2006 became a subject of discussion on local messaging boards; locals discovered that the director of the company which built it told the Russian TV channel Vesti in 2008 that the barrier would protect Tulun for “a hundred years.” The installation, constructed as part of a federal program to prevent flooding, burst during the recent surge.
When Andrey Pertsev, a correspondent for independent news website Meduza, visited Tulun earlier this week, he found residents suspicious and resentful, harbouring their own theories for why the flood happened. One of these blames the floods on the methods used by firefighters to combat forest fires which hit the region in April and May (emergency services used cloud seeding techniques to fight the blaze.) These theories have not yet surfaced in any expert commentaries on the causes of the flood.
The Ministry of Emergency Situations initially put the causes as rapidly melting snows in the Sayan Mountains in the south of the province combined with heavy rainfall. On July 1, professor Inna Latysheva of Irkutsk State University released a statement claiming that this heavy rainfall, and thereby the floods, were the result of humid and warm air masses moving from the Pacific Ocean. But some weren’t buying it.
On Saturday, the influential Russian blogger El-Murid saw the tragedy as not the result of nature, “but theft.” In his opinion, the reason why such disasters always require the mass mobilisation of emergency services is that there are no resources left for systematic work to prevent them from happening.
Это наводнение в Иркутской области. Но на самом деле это не только наводнение. Так выглядит то, что у нас стыдливо называется “выводом средств”. Те самые четыре-пять триллионов, которые украдены у страны нынешней компрадорской властью. Поэтому просто нет средств для проведения стандартных противопаводковых мероприятий, стоимость которых по сравнению с ущербом от наводнений примерно на порядок ниже. […] Это и есть самый что ни на есть видимый пример того, что в стране, которой правят уголовники и воры, любая проблема будет немедленно превращаться в катастрофу и апокалипсис. И причина этих катастроф – не природа, а воры, продолжающие править страной.
Here’s the flood in the Irkutsk Region. Actually it’s not merely a flood. This is what we shamefully call a “withdrawal of funds.” The very same four or five billion stolen from the country by today’s comprador rulers. As a result, there are simply not the resources to carry out standard flood prevention measures, the costs of which are substantially lower than the losses caused by floods. […] This is the single most obvious example of the fact that in a country ruled by criminals and thieves, any problem will quickly turn into a catastrophe and an apocalypse. And the reason for these catastrophes is not nature, but the thieves who continue to rule the country.
— Эль Мюрид (facebook.com/el.murid.3), 29 сентября 2019
Similarly, the blogger who goes by the pseudonym Stepan Razin suggested that attempts to explain the flood with reference to abnormal weather conditions were tantamount to whitewashing the role of corruption in weakening the state’s ability to respond. A debate about the causes of the crisis quickly became a way of mapping other commentators’ perceived attitudes to the Russian authorities.
Кто их затопил? Природа? Вы видели дожди по многочисленным кадрам из мест наводнения? Я вот даже маленького дождя не видел. Да и какими это должны были быть дожди, чтобы вода поднялась на 14 метров, когда до этого рекорд был 10 метров? В 1983 году. По предыдущему опыту, я четко усвоил, что за всеми “природными” катастрофами, стоят друзья сказочного или выстроеная им коррупционная вертикаль.
What flooded them? Nature? Did you see rain on the numerous pictures from the flood sites? I didn’t even see a little rain. And what kind of rain is supposed to cause the water level to rise by 14 metres, when before the record high was 10? Previous experience has taught me that behind all “natural” disasters are the friends of those who built a vertical of corruption.
— Stepan Timofeevich Razin (facebook.com/serg.simonov.9) 30 июня 2019
A more elaborate theory recently expressed by oppositional commentators concerns a large dam and hydroelectric plant upstream from the worst affected towns. These posit that it was in the interests of the dam’s owners to keep the adjacent Bratsk Reservoir topped up with water beyond safe levels, intending to produce and sell more electricity. This theory is nourished by the fact that the dam also powers an adjacent aluminium processing plant connected to Rusal, the metallurgical firm owned by prominent Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Как доказать, что ПОТОП в Иркобласти имеет хотя бы отчасти рукотворный характер? Напрямую – никак, но есть, мне кажется, один четкий косвенный признак: все федеральные радио- и телеканалы без умолку треплются о наводнении, репортажи “с места”, “прямые включения”, новости с этого начинаются и заканчиваются – но при этом версия “нет ли в происходящем вины местных гигантских ГЭС” (которая, вообще говоря, должна первой приходить в голову любому разумному человеку) нигде не то что не обсуждается и не опровергается – она никоим образом даже ни разу не упоминается! Как будто крепко табуирована… Впрочем, на языке современных госпиарщиков это называется изящней – “блок”.
How can we prove that the FLOOD in the Irkutsk Region had a man-made character? There’s no direct way. But it seems to me that there is one clear indirect sign: all the federal radio and TV channels are constantly talking about flooding, but there’s no version which lays the blame at the nearby giant hydroelectric power plants (which should be the first thing in the mind of any rational person.) It’s neither discussed nor refuted; it’s just not mentioned in any way! It’s as though it’s strictly tabooed… as the state’s PR people would more gracefully put it, “blocked.”
— Alexey Roshchin (zen.yandex.ru/sapojnik), The Price of Russian Aluminium, 30 июня 2019
These commentators seemed to regard any explanation which stressed natural causes as a willingness to avoid assigning blame, if not an attempt to depoliticise the tragedy entirely. Eugene Simonov, international coordinator of the ecological group Rivers Without Boundaries, suggested that theories such as Roshchin’s were more of a reflection of Russia’s “sociopolitical psychology,” attesting to the extremely low degree of trust in the authorities.
In a roundtable discussion on Sibir.Realii, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Siberian service, on July 2, Simonov and Alexander Kolotov, director of the ecological organization Plotina, broadly agreed that man-made factors played a role in the flood. Kolotov believes that there are still grounds for suspicion around the role of the hydroelectric dam, remarking that data on the status of the Bratsk Reservoir between June 28 and July 1 was mysteriously unavailable on Rushydro’s website.
Simonov attributed the floods to incompetence and mismanagement by the local authorities, noting that residents were poorly informed about what to do in the event of a flood, that early warning systems did not work, and that authorities had been quick to allow construction on floodplains. Lessons from earlier floods in Siberia in 2013 and 2018, he concluded, had not been learned.
One conviction that unites commentators is the belief that Russian officials are eager to pass the buck when it comes to assuming responsibility. As ever, the RuNet’s vigilant satirists were quick to weigh in:
Путин поручил для борьбы с наводнением под Иркутском привлечь армию
Шойгу поручил генералам
Генералы поручили полковникам
Полковники поручили майорам
Майоры поручили капитанам
Капитаны поручили лейтенантам
Лейтенанты поручили прапорщикам
Прапорщики ищут на глобусе Иркутск
— Мысли Перзидента (@VVP2_0) June 30, 2019
Putin has instructed the army to head to Irkutsk to combat the flood
[Defense Minster] Sergey Shoigu has instructed the generals
The generals have instructed the colonels
The colonels have ordered the majors
The captains have ordered the lieutenants
The lieutenants have ordered the ensigns
And the ensigns are searching for Irkutsk on a globe
— Мысли Перзидента (@VVP2_0) 30 июня 2019
Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations has already issued warnings for extreme rainfall in the neighbouring regions of Buryatia and Tuva. Whatever lessons the authorities can learn from the floods in the Irkutsk Region, they may have to learn them quickly; the next tragedy could be right around the corner.