From floods to fires, Russia sees stronger climate impacts - but efforts to adapt lag

Source(s): Thomson Reuters Foundation,
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"For years there was a public image that climate change only meant rising temperatures, but now we see that it is much more about unexpected natural disasters," says a ministry spokesman

By Angelina Davydova

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Russia is seeing stronger climate change impacts, from deadly storms in Moscow to river flooding in the country's south, but efforts to adapt to the growing problems remain limited, experts warn.

With around 10 million of the country's people facing immediate climate-related risks, according to Russian researchers, there is a need for federal and regional climate adaptation strategies, including better early warning systems and modernised infrastructure, the experts said.

Last week, a hurricane with winds up to 30 meters per second (67 miles per hour) hit Moscow at rush hour, leaving 16 people dead and more than 200 others injured, according to Russia's Emergency Ministry.

At the other end of the country, in southeastern Siberia, forest fires have repeatedly destroyed settlements with thousands of local residents evacuated and relocated.

In the south of Russia heavy rains and river flooding that threatened a dam in the Stavropol region led to the evacuation of a few thousand people in late May.

"These are all visible effects of climate change happening in Russia now. It is finally clear for everyone that the global climate crisis also has highly negative impacts for Russia, with more disasters to come," Alexey Kokorin, head of the climate and energy program at WWF-Russia, said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nikolay Gudkov, the spokesman for Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources, said the government was increasingly aware of the problem.

"Yes, all these disasters come as a result of climate change, we do acknowledge that," he said.

"For years there was a public image that climate change only meant rising temperatures, but now we see that it is much more about unexpected natural disasters happening in various parts of the country," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Russia's leaders - long skeptical about human-induced climate change - are now taking the issue more seriously, at least on paper, experts say.

Rising temperatures - and risks

According to state meteorological service Roshydromet, average temperature in Russia in 2016 grew 2.5 times quicker than the global average.

The World Meteorological Organization has said that temperatures in parts of Artic Russia around the Ob River estuary and Novaya Zemlya are 6 to 7 degrees Celsius above the 1961-90 average, while worldwide temperatures are closer to 1 degree Celsius above that average.

Both 2015 and 2016 were the warmest years in Russia since the beginning of meteorological observations, the agency said.

Most international climate risk indices put Russia at medium or low risk from climate change. The most recent World Risk Report, put together by United Nations University, for instance, puts Russia in 128th place worldwide in terms of risk.

But researchers say assessments of overall country risk are not a good fit for Russia, where the population is distributed highly unevenly, with both sparsely populated areas and large concentrations of people in cities.

Sergey Donskoy, Russia's environment minister, has said that the negative effects of climate change are already costing the country 30 to 60 billion rubles ($530 million to $1 billion) yearly.

Forecasts suggest that climate change-related losses may reach as much as 1 to 2 percent of the country's GDP by 2030, he said.

Over the last 15 to 20 years the number of dangerous meteorological events in Russia has doubled, with around 590 last year, ranging from strong winds and storms to heavy rain, Russian climatologists said last month, at the opening of Russian Climate Week in Moscow.

The country is also seeing - or expected to see - stronger heatwaves and cold snaps, droughts in southern agricultural areas, increasing numbers of forest fires and thawing of permafrost, which covers more than 60 percent of Russia's territory, the climatologists said.

"There will be more high waters, including floods, in the areas where we already have a lot of water, and there will be even less water in dry regions", Mikhail Georgievsky, a researcher from the State Hydrological Institute, said at a Russian-British seminar on climate risks in March in Moscow.

Stepan Zemtsov, a researcher with the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, noted that more than 10 million people are "highly exposed" to climate risks in Russia.

Planning ahead

Researchers and environmentalists have called for both federal and regional strategies to adapt to the growing problems to be drafted soon.

"Russia is far too slow in its adaptation policy measures," said Kokorin, of WWF-Russia.

The country has plans to develop and approve a national adaptation plan by mid-2018, as part of its plan to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Russia is the only large carbon emitter that has not yet ratified the 2015 global climate accord, in part because of pressure from the country's coal and metal industries, which are worried about possible carbon regulation measures, experts said.

So far just six of 85 regions in Russia - including Moscow and St. Petersburg - are working on regional climate adaptation strategies.

"New climate adaptation strategy should certainly modernise early warning systems, especially in the area of spreading of information," Zemtsov said.

According to polling of residents in Russia's most climate-vulnerable regions by Zemtsov and his team, 69 percent of people do not know evacuation routes, 55 percent have never taken part in any training activity and 14 percent openly say they will ignore any alarm raised, he said.

Zemtsov said he believed all of those percentages could be higher in other parts of the country.

Researchers say Russia will need to modernise its infrastructure - including its drainage systems - to deal with problems such as increasingly heavy rain.

Storm drains in St. Petersburg, for instance, are already at capacity while rainfall is predicted to become much heavier by the end of the century.

"Climate change should become an important factor in urban planning in Russia. We need to start thinking in terms of climate-resilient architecture and city planning," said Ksenia Mokrushina, a director of the Centre of Urban Studies at Skolkovo Moscow School of Management.

"Fighting with disasters and adapting to climate change is not a one-off action, it is a regular set of measures," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For the moment, she said, government action is disproportionately focused on responding to disasters and recovering from them instead of preparing for them and trying to reduce risks.

"The shift towards adaptation planning and risk management must happen at the local level rather than waiting for the federal Ministry for Emergency to come and rescue when it is already too late," she said.

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