Russia flood victims in far east pay for past mistakes

Flooded house in Vladimirovka
Image caption A guard dog is still on duty at this flooded house in Vladimirovka

Floods affecting a big swathe of Russia's far east will cost the authorities billions of roubles in compensation - payments that could have been avoided if lessons had been learnt from similar disasters in the past.

The Amur and Zeya rivers, near the Chinese border, burst their banks near the town of Blagoveshchensk after torrential rain.

"Thirty years of dry weather made people forgetful, and they started building in places where there is a risk of flooding," says Pyotr Osipov, an ecologist for the environmental group WWF in the Amur region.

He remembers the record flooding of 1984, when the Zeya spilled across a wider area than today. But since then more villages and towns have grown up along the banks. Somehow people believed there would be no more floods.

"We had the river pouring deep into the floodplains, as far as 15km (nine miles). It is no surprise, as the river bed formed over thousands of years without human involvement," Mr Osipov says.

He argues that the authorities should have moved people from risky areas long ago. Now they will have to do it anyway - but also spend money on compensation.

Image caption Lawyer Boris Burdeyev says people were let down by complacent local officials

Boris Burdeyev, a 30-year-old lawyer, is outraged. "Why did they give permission to build here?" he asks.

His house, in the village of Vladimirovka near Blagoveshchensk, used to be a long way from the river, but is now submerged up to its windows.

"This isn't some kind of shanty town - all the houses were built legally, with official approval," he says. He built his home four years ago at a cost of about 3m roubles (£58,000; $91,000). He does not know if it will be habitable after the water subsides.

Local authorities are paying about $300 each to those forced to flee affected areas. There is a promise of more compensation to come from the central government. It all depends on the value of their lost property and possessions, and could stretch to tens of thousands of dollars per person.

Threat of looting

But Yelena, who works for a local nursery, cannot say how much she will get in compensation, if anything.

"You have to prove what property you had, you have to present papers, photos."

Although herself a flood victim, she helps other evacuees, who have been temporarily housed in a nursery school. Her own house, which she and her husband built in Vladimirovka, is now under water.

It was made of timber and was too close to the river, she says. A brick house would have survived, but theirs will be totally ruined.

There is more to worry about than the floodwaters. "Looters are already working hard," says Yekaterina from the village of Grodekovo.

For the past 10 days she and her child have been staying at the nursery where Yelena works. Yekaterina's parents are still in the flooded village. "They practically live up on the roof, surrounded by chickens, rabbits… and looters," she said.

But local residents say looting incidents have been rare. Grigory Nikishin, director of a holiday village in Belogorye, 20km upstream from Blagoveshchensk, said: "We had a few attempts in the first days of flooding, but our security people and police chased them off."

However, he decided to stay behind with several employees to keep watch over half-submerged buildings. "All the ground-floor rooms are under water. The floors, tiling, linoleum is going to be ruined. All will have to be redone," he said.

Expensive insurance

Image caption A nursery school provides shelter for some evacuees

Mr Nikishin does not know if the village will get any compensation from the authorities. But he is not too concerned, as commercial property in this area is usually insured.

Antonina and Alexander, whose timber house in Belogorye was bought with a bank loan, also had insurance. Now they will have to dismantle it and rebuild. They hope the insurance will cover at least part of the loss.

But most local people are not so lucky. Why didn't they bother to get insurance? The answer is simple - too expensive, says lawyer Boris Burdeyev.

According to him, 15 years of paying the annual insurance premium would be as much as the price tag for the house. But the last big flood happened 29 years ago.

"Even for me it is too expensive. Imagine an old couple living in a little cottage, their only home. They eat whatever they grow in the back garden. What insurance can they afford?"

He believes insurance companies must think more about the poor, and not just their wealthy customers.

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