Flood crisis response in Russia’s Far East: From Putin’s hands-on control to public mass mobilisation

By Aadne Aasland

An unprecedented flood
The 2013 flood in the Amur river basin in Russia’s Far East has now receded, though much time and effort will still be needed for the difficult task of cleaning up the garbage and mud carried by the floods. The flood, which lasted for two months, was caused by extraordinarily heavy rain from the beginning of August. The extreme event surpassed all meteorological records since systematic measuring began some 120 years ago. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the flooded territories while the number of people who have in some way been affected has reached 168,000. The economic impact is enormous, in the size of tens of billions of roubles, which makes it by far the most costly flood disaster in Russia’s history. However, in contrast both to the crash flood in Krymsk last summer where 171 people were killed, and the flood at the Chinese side of the border where more than 200 casualties were reported – no lives have been reported lost in Russia’s Far East.

Satellite pictures of the Amur river basin under normal conditions and during the flood. Credit: NASA/Wikimedia

President Putin takes the command
How has Russian society handled this extreme event? In the reports made by Russian and international media, apart from photographs from the flood itself, the hands-on control exercised by President Putin is the aspect of the disaster that has received most attention. The president went to the region about one month after the start of the flood – slightly late according to some critics – but immediately took the leadership of the crisis management. Putin gave detailed orders, reprimanded inefficiencies, and criticized excessive bureaucracy. He expressed disappointment with local leaders’ management of the crisis and demanded action at a detailed level concerning issues such as deliverance of fuel, repair of roads and food provisions to flood victims.

The president also warned officials not to steal new housing for their friends and relatives, which has been a feature of previous crises. He declared that all compensations must go to real victims of the flood. Putin furthermore announced a compensation of 100,000 rubles from the federal budget to those whose homes had been damaged beyond repair and 10,000 to individuals having suffered economic losses. These flat rates testify to the slow development of the insurance industry in Russia, where individuals and firms are unlikely to set off risk reserves for insurance, leaving most housing and much of infrastructure uninsured.

Furthermore, crude lump sums for compensations might be easier to administer than compensations based on more accurate estimates of costs of the damage. Compensations based on actual estimation of damage would also leave more room for discretion with the risk of more corruption in the distribution of resources.
The fact that the president takes a keen interest in overviewing the situation and even takes command of the response operations would be expected from him in a crisis situation of this magnitude. However, the informal practice of micro-management of so many aspects and details of the rescue operation – which Putin has applied in this and other similar situations – can also be interpreted as a way to make up for the inefficiencies of Russia’s formal institutions.

The road between two major cities in the region August 2013. Credit: Andshel/Wikimedia

Leadership reshuffle – but who is now in charge of what?

Extreme events can be a favourable time to change the crew. Though officially not related to the flood itself, the Minister for Far East Development and the President’s envoy to the Far East Federal District, Viktor Ishaev, was removed from office at the end of August. Ishaev had remained a powerful politician in the region from the Yeltsin era, but in the capacity of minister he had not fulfilled the expectations of the Kremlin and was accused by president Putin of inefficiency. The many flaws of flood crisis management that were revealed provided an apt opportunity to replace him without disturbance from the local elites supporting him. A former Putin aide, Yuri Trutnev, was appointed as new presidential envoy to the Far East and simultaneously deputy prime minister, while Aleksandr Galushka became new Far East minister.

In early September prime minister Medvedev announced that he would head a new cross-sectoral government commission for development of Russia’s Far East. One of its major tasks would be normalisation of the situation after the flood. Dealing with the inefficiencies that had been revealed in handling the current flood was announced as another important task of the commission. According to Medvedev the commission will also deal with more general socio-economic challenges in the Far East. The region has over the past years shown a negative economic trend, which was further exacerbated by this summer’s flood disaster. With president Putin’s hands-on control, the prime minister’s commission, a Far East Development minister and a presidential envoy in the Russian Far East all heavily involved in flood crisis management and reducing the impact in the aftermath of the flood, some analysts have called for a clearer division of the responsibilities of the leaders and their governance structures. They argue that tasks delegated to various actors seem to overlap, and that the division of responsibilities have not yet been clearly defined in legal or policy documents.

Crisis management and cross-sectoral involvement

What then is the system of crisis management in a situation in which a natural disaster such as a major flood is developing in Russia? It starts with the Russian metereological agency Rosgidromet issuing a warning to the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) that a crisis situation, such as a flood, could occur. The MChS, being responsible for managing emergency situations, then assesses the potential risk and impact. The next is to inform and give a timely warning to the population. There is a particular regional system of distribution of information to the public for which regional authorities, and ultimately the regional governor (head of one of Russia’s 83 regions), is responsible.

This whole chain is said to have worked well in the crisis situation that emerged in the Far East this summer. The timely response was important for preventing more damage, and probably the loss of lives. The evacuation of people away from the affected areas went quite smoothly. In some places there was enough time to save livestock, in other places they had to focus solely on rescuing people.

During an emergency situation a number of civil and military, state and non-state structures are in operation to reduce the impact: evacuate people, provide shelter, food and other provisions to victims and rescue operations, rebuild bridges and repair other damaged infrastructure, secure transport, assess the risk to public health and avoid the spread of diseases and epidemics, respond to psychological needs, facilitate business and public services to operate as soon as possible – and so on. Russia has set up a so-called ‘unified system of warning and elimination of emergency situations’, and in 2008 the National Centre for Management of Crisis Situations was established as part of the MChS structure for the running management of this system.

In the current crisis the president set up a Government Commission for the Elimination of the Consequences of the Flood in the Far East, with representatives of a number of state institutions: the State prosecutor, the Committee for civil defence, the ministries of natural resources and ecology, finance, energy, health, regional development, transport, employment and social protection, economic development, agriculture, a number of federal services (i.e. for consumer protection, meteorology, technological supervision), the managers of public companies (railways, telecommunications, hydroelectric power) and leaders from the affected regions. The tasks of the commission are to eliminate the impact of the flood, implement measures for social support, organise resettlement, secure supplies, repair damaged roads and transport systems, and other damaged infrastructure.

Speculations have been raised that an evaluation of the flood crisis management during the Far East flood might result in a reorganisation in which the MChS will be transformed to an agency or a directorate to be subordinated to the Ministry of Defence. This would, it could be argued, facilitate better coordination in rescue operations. At the same time, however, it could strengthen the military and weaken the civil control with emergency situations.

Flooded streets in Blagoveshchensk. Credit: EMERCOM of Russia

Could the impact have been reduced? Official and unofficial accounts
During the development of the flood there was a redistribution of the enormous masses of water into the channels, dams and reservoirs in order to prevent peaks of water in places that were not yet prepared for a flood. This enabled the construction of flood protection in many places before the main peak of the flood arrived. Water authorities claim that the disaster would have been much more serious had the dams along the river not been able to accumulate some of the excess water. Floods in the area are said to have been worse in the past, before such artificial water reservoirs were built.

Every step of the engineers at the hydroelectric power plants is strongly regulated and controlled through instructions from state authorities. The regimes for filling and tapping of water in the water reservoirs, including in flood situations, are set by the Federal Agency for Water Resources. In every region the agency has its territorial subunits, so-called Basin Water Boards, that regulate the operations of every hydroelectric power station and dam. Inputs on how these regulations should be set are given by a variety of institutions: the ministries of emergency situations and agriculture and their subordinate structures, the Federal service for veterinary surveillance (Rossel’khoznadzor), the Federal agency for sea and river transport (Rosmorrechflot), and the Federal agency for infrastructure and housing (Rosstroi). The regime of a power station is modified only when instructions for this are given by the territorial Basin Water Board.

In the situation of a potential imminent flood, which was the case with the Far East flood this year, the Government commission for prevention and localization of emergency situations meets to decide on amendments to the regulation regime.
According to the water authorities’ official version, the regulation of water levels was set so that the power stations in the region were able to take up a sufficient amount of water to avoid an even larger catastrophe. Just a couple of months before the flood, however, Rusgidro, one of Russia’s largest power-generating companies and owner of the hydroelectric power stations in the region, announced that water reservoirs of these power stations would be capable of protecting the Far East cities from any amount of water in a flood situation.

Some independent scientists claim that the impact of the flood could have been reduced considerably had two of the major hydroelectric power stations (Zeysk and Bureysk) been prepared for more water to arrive. According to these claims, instead of giving priority to security, the regulation of the filling and tapping of water had been set in order to achieve the highest possible production of energy during the winter season, thus keeping the water levels at such high levels that a significant amount of additional water would cause severe problems. Water allegedly continued to be filled into the reservoirs even after warnings about a potentially imminent flood had been given by the meteorological authorities. Even after Rusgidro itself started to report about increased flood risk, the speed with which the power stations power began tapping water from the reservoirs was much lower than what would have been possible and which could – according to the same critics – have reduced the later impact.

The critics furthermore argue that in both of the mentioned power stations the amounts of water at the time of the flood was far greater than permitted by federal authorities. They claim that if the amount of water arriving had been only slightly greater, the dams could have burst and the impact is likely to have been far more serious with a probable loss of many lives. Such challenges have been foreseen for several years. Previous attempts by ecologists to change the local regulations for emergency excess water storage have failed, allegedly since it is more profitable to have the reservoirs filled up before the usually drier winter season. Ironically, the water reservoirs are now fully filled up, and Rusgidro will earn substantial additional money on the production of energy this coming winter.

The Bureysk hydro-electric power station in normal conditions. Credit: Коренюк Ирина/Wikimedia

Compensating the victims
A number of societal actors are involved not only in the rescue work and reconstruction, but also in providing compensation and humanitarian aid to those who in different ways have been affected by the flood. A cross-sectoral working group was set up to coordinate the collection and distribution of such aid which has come from federal sources, different regions of Russia, businesses, foreign states and individual contributions. This working group is headed by the Minister for Far East Development and consists of representatives of the affected regions, various federal agencies, but also representatives of big companies, various humanitarian and civil society organisations, including the Russian orthodox church. The Russian TV channel Pervyi kanal (First channel) is also represented in the working group.

By 1 October 91% of those with a request for a personal compensation for damage (109,000 individuals) had received 10,000 roubles. More than 8,000 people had received 100,000 roubles, which makes up 75% of those having filed such claims to the authorities. However, by that date not all dwellings had been examined yet for the size of the damage.

About one fifth of damaged buildings were considered non-inhabitable. Lost crop and other agricultural produce caused by the flood are also compensated through federal budgets – the preliminary estimation is in the size of about 6.6 billion roubles. At a meeting 1 October the cross-sectoral government commission reprimanded local leaders for the alleged low speed of examining the damage, compensating victims and building new dwellings for resettlement of those having lost their dwelling as a result of the flood. They stressed that the hard winters of the Far East will be arriving soon, and that this speaks for the importance of quick action.

Civil society is given a prominent role in monitoring the transparency in the allocation of aid. Public committees have been established in order to examine how the aid is being distributed, to whom it is allocated, and its quality. The need for such transparency has been emphasised by the president as well as the above-mentioned cross-sectoral working group, stressing that mass media should have access to information about all allocation of funds in order to be able to report on deficiencies in the distribution. Russian authorities highly encourage this type of civil society involvement, and also media coverage of shortcomings in the execution of policy, as long as it does not question the quality and legitimacy of the policy or the political system as such. It remains to be seen whether the distribution of aid and compensation for losses will indeed be fair and transparent. Previous experience from other natural disasters in Russia is quite discouraging in that respect, something that is also quite openly admitted by the Russian leaders.

Mass mobilisation
Several newspaper commentators have praised the public who ‘under considerable pressure and without aiming at personal rewards’ contributed to limit the damage, built temporary flood protection, helped out during evacuation and enganged in other essential voluntary work. This, they claim, contradicts the current widespread perceptions of Russian citizens as egoistic and oriented towards personal gains without compassion for the misfortunes of strangers. The efforts of volunteers were crucial in order to limit the damage and prevent the loss of lives. The mere size of the rescue operation is indeed quite impressive: a total of more than 45,000 people were permanently or temporarily employed in rescue and related work. There can be no doubt that without the involvement of so many people willing to work for the common good, the consequences of the flood could have been much more disastrous.

People from all parts of Russia, as well as from Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and other countries, have also contributed humanitarian aid to flood victims, mainly through Pervyi kanal’s telethon on 29 September. In total almost 830 million roubles were collected in this whole day TV event. The amount is perhaps not huge when compared to the 40 billion roubles allocated by federal authorities to eliminate the flood’s impact. Nevertheless, the aid given by ordinary people and civil society is expected to contribute to build several hundred 55m² apartments to flood victims.

Amur river near Khabarovsk in September 2013. Credit: Gleb Osokin/Wikimedia

Criminal cases of negligence
During his visit to the flooded territories the president also ordered the Russian Investigative Committee to verify how officials acted during the floods. Based on expert assessments he hinted that some of them had not acted in compliance with the instructions given to them and with existing legislation. Two criminal cases over alleged negligence have so far been opened in the aftermath of the flood. One of the cases relates to the destruction of one of the dams in the Amur oblast resulting in the loss of 69 dwellings. According to the investigative committee, the maintenance of the dam had been neglected, with the result that the water could not be contained and a nearby town was flooded. The leadership of the dam has been prosecuted. The second case of negligence has been raised against the Land Irrigation and Water Supply Department of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. A 2012 review of repair needs to a dam in the region noted several urgently needed improvements. The Board had even received the funds for the required repairs, but they had nevertheless not been implemented yet. The damage is said to amount to 1.5 million roubles. Mass media suggest that the number of criminal cases is likely to grow as further investigations of flood prevention and conduct during the flood are carried out.

What is the human impact on climate change?
The flood has also somewhat intensified an until now quite weak debate in Russia: are natural disasters such as this one simply part of cyclic climatic fluctuations, or has human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions caused or exacerbated them? Until quite recently in the general Russian academic and political discourse only a few voices, mostly ecologists, have assigned any significant human impact to the ongoing climate changes. However, the huge forest fires near Moscow in the super-hot summer of 2010 and other recent natural disasters have increased attention to the possible impact of human activity. Still, the predominant opinion among Russian politicians and scientists is that this impact is negligible or manageable, or that the positive effects for Russia of global warming and other potential changes to the climate are likely to outnumber the negative ones.

The Russian government has deep ties to the petroleum industry from which the state derives huge revenues. This might be one reason why it has put much more emphasis on crisis management than on discussing the causes of the increasing number of extreme events or taking measures to reduce Russian emissions. However, representatives of some state agencies, such as the meteorological centre Rosgidromet, now officially acknowledge the human impact. Still, they have only very slowly started to voice such concerns in the public. For example, the head of the Rosgidromet in Khabarovsk region referring to this summer’s events said that “[i]t is quite possible that such showers are indeed consequences of global warming. How else to explain this constant change in the climate? […] I would not laugh at those who say such things”.

A village on the Amur river. Credit: Andshel/Wikimedia

Despite all flaws: A high state capacity for crisis management
The flood in the Far East has confirmed some of the weaknesses of the Russian governance system. What several analysts have singled out to have been the biggest challenge in handling the crisis, and which was also underlined by Putin himself, is the inability or fear of bureaucrats to make decisions without clear backing from above. With the many layers of subordination in the Russian hierarchy, it takes time from an action is required until all necessary authorisations have been obtained. An environment in which people at subordinate levels are reluctant to make independent decisions for fears of negative sanctions from above is not well suited for crisis management, when timely action of all actors at all levels is crucial. Hands-on control and micro-management exercised by political leaders at higher levels, where informal rules often trump formal guidelines and institutionalised lines of responsibility, are embedded in Russian political culture. Putin’s presidency has done little to remedy this problem.

Despite such weaknesses, during this summer’s flood Russia has proved itself in many respects to be better equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude than are many other countries, including Russia’s neighbours. Due to its harsh climate Russia has vast experience in handling extreme events and, among them, floods, though they are now occurring with a higher frequency compared only to some decades ago. Laws and regulations, including zoning, are in place, and so are modern anti-flood technologies, an efficient flood forecast-warning system, high-level flood risk assessment and flood-related data bases. Public awareness about the risks is gradually being raised as people have seen the huge damage on TV or with their own eyes. The Russian state capacity is strong from the local to the federal level. An integrated system for handling crises is in place and quite well functioning. Negligence and fraud occur in all societies. Knowing Russia’s rather poor ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index nobody, including the Russian leaders, would be surprised that instances where people exploit the situation for personal economic gains are revealed. Such situations typically emerge when huge amounts of compensations are to be distributed or state procurement contracts for reconstruction work are to be assigned. Public involvement in monitoring such processes is encouraging.

Though some officials, among them the federal head of Rosgidromet, have stressed that this year’s flood was an extreme event that is unlikely to occur more often than once every 200 years or so, other experts argue that the current scientific knowledge already indicates that extreme floods, including in the Far East, are likely to occur more frequently in the future. The mere fact that so much excess water is currently accumulated in the river basin without a natural outlet increases the risk of a flood in the next few years. The responsible institutions have already started to work on adaptation plans for future extreme events in order to prevent the impact of large floods in the future. The building of more water reservoirs that can be filled up in an emergency situation has been brought forward as one of the measures to be taken, though it is not unequivocally supported by specialists. The MChS staff in the Far East district is to be doubled, and much of the equipment used in rescue work that was brought in from other parts of Russia will remain in the region. Reorganisations in the management of emergency situations are also being debated. Whether or not the flood represents a shift in Russian political and public attention towards climate change and spurs more focus on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases remains to be seen.

Find out more about Russbyklim, an ongoing NIBR research project on climate disasters in Russia and their effect on governance and planning processes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *