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Putin warns government officials of Far Eastern region over flood relief efforts

September 02, 2013, 18:06 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, September 2 (Itar-Tass) - Rains pouring down on the Far East of Russia for a second month on end have brought about a full or partial inundation of over 5,500 houses. The authorities have had to evacuate about 27,500 people from the disaster area.

All in all, the zone where the natural calamity is raging embraces 115 cities, townships and villages in the Amur region, the Jewish autonomous region and the Khabarovsk territory.

President Vladimir Putin spent the second half of last week inspecting the flooded territories from aboard a helicopter. Almost a half of the cabinet of ministers traveled to the Far East together with him.

Putin spoke to the federal and local officials in a very tough way. For instance, he told a meeting in the Jewish autonomous region that the people evacuated to the temporary accommodation camps were highly dissatisfied. “They write to me the conditions for accommodation are not very good there because the food resembles jail gruel and children don’t eat it.”

“Should I put you on jail gruel yourselves to make you get down to resolving the problem?” he asked with a rhetoric note.

A partial reshuffle occurred in the commanding echelon as a result, and the Minister for Development of the Far East, Viktor Ishayev, who simultaneously performed the duties of the President’s plenipotentiary representatives in the Far Eastern Federal District, was fired. Former presidential aide Yuri Trutnev was appointed to replace him. He will also stay in charge of operations of a governmental commission steering the elimination of the disaster aftermaths.

Russian media say Trutnev is an efficient manager and he will now report to First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, whose duties include development of Far-Eastern regions and territories.

Shuvalov was successful in implementing a project titled ‘Vladivostok as the Economic Capital of the Far East’. As part of it, the city got a new up-to-date compound of the Far-Eastern Federal University, a new airport, a line for express trains commuting between the city and the airport, up-to-date bridges, and dozens of kilometers of automobile roads.

Upon rounding up the trip to the Far East, Putin signed a decree that envisions the setting up of a government commission for eliminating the aftermaths of the floods. The cabinet of ministers has been told to pass a resolution on paying out lump-sum benefits in the amount of 10,000 rubles and 100,000 rubles /$ 301 and $ 3,012 at the current exchange rate respectively/ to each resident of the Far East who has sustained damage and lost property.

Also, a provision has been made for allocating money for the repairs of damaged housing in the amount of 5,000 rubles /$ 150/ for each square meter.

The question that looms nonetheless is how the flooding of a huge area 2,000 km long and 500 meters wide became at all possible.

An acclaimed Russian expert in geography, Dr. Leonid Smirnyagin of Moscow Lomonosov State University told Itar-Tass this year’s the disastrous inundation became a product of a mindless approach to the factors of nature by the previous generations of Russians builders.

“Left-hand banks of rivers are lower than the right-hand banks all across the northern hemisphere but the all the flooded population centers were built precisely on the left-hand bank of the Amur River although the experts in construction know it perfectly well that it is totally prohibited to build residential houses and other installations in the rivers’ floodplains,” Dr Smirnyagin said.

The Russian Far East evidenced horrendous floods before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, too, and Soviet government did not draw any conclusions from the Czarist-era experience.

“They should have built everything at terraces on hillsides because the Far East has mountainous terrain,” Dr. Smirnyagin.

He indicated that Russia is not an exception as regards a thoughtless approach to the construction of housing in risk zones. “Companies in the U.S. also build houses in the areas that might be inundated,” Dr. Smirnyagin said.

He refuted the assertions that the losses sustained in the Far East in the past month are irreparable. Although China suffers from floods much more often and to a much bigger degree, the economy there is growing at a high enough rate, he said.

Dr. Smirnyagin made an ironic illusion to Vladimir Lenin, quoting his post-revolutionary remark that “The Far East is a land of ours” and he voiced the hope that the Russian government would not be thrifty in allocating monies for elimination of the damage inflicted on the region by the floods.

He recalled that the regions and territories of the Far East embraced by the disaster have very favorable conditions for the development of agriculture. “The soils there are superb and the climate is very beneficial”.

An extra factor demanding the federal government’s heightened attention is the low density of the population across the Russian Far East. It has a total population of only 8 million people, which is much less than in any Chinese province lying right across the border.

“This means we shouldn’t forget about the geopolitical factors, in addition to the purely ecological ones,” Dr. Smirnyagin said.

Elimination of the flood’s aftermaths and rehabilitation of the infrastructure will require a huge budgetary spending. Estimates suggest that rehabilitation of the farming sector alone may require about 30 billion rubles /about $ 903 million at the current exchange rate/. The problem is that overall damage cannot be sized up at the moment as the floodwater has not receded yet.

Notably enough, Vladimir Putin said during the trip that the economic slowdown was necessitating a downward revision of budgetary expenditure plans. In other words, he suggested a belt-tightening policy. On the face of it, the Finance Ministry has come up with a forecast saying a slide of world prices for crude oil might begin in 2016. This obviously is not the news story one would be glad to hear, as earnings from the export of oil make up the main part of Russia’s budget revenues.