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Laid low by the heat

The Russian heat wave has been going on for weeks. From her dacha Elena Strelnikova gives a wry account of officials on freebies, water shortages and the catastrophic effects of the lasting heat on fruit, crops, milk yields and life in the Orenburg Region in general.
Elena Strelnikova
20 August 2010

I had a cold shower, but after 5 minutes it was as if I hadn’t had one at all. The fan makes no difference and as for air conditioning – well, as usual, that’s something we’re just about to buy. But not this season. This “sign of civilisation” is in such demand now that they’re flying off the shelves. One even has to register to join a queue to buy them. 

Utility companies report that over the summer demand for energy has grown threefold.  Of course it has….in this heat. Perhaps another shower? The water company “Vodokanal” will get rich, because the Orenburgers are running water 24/7. It’s all we have during these months of all-engulfing heat. At the moment it's only the regional centre that has an uninterrupted water supply. The problems start as soon as you move a short distance away from Orenburg. Some districts have no water for weeks, perhaps for almost the whole summer.  People use buckets and shoulder-yokes to carry water from the local reservoirs (to water the vegetable garden) or from miraculously still functioning wells (to cook with). Baths and a little bit of washing are the stuff of dreams. By the way, it's a paradox: just as soon as complaints start appearing in the media, the water company people suddenly manage to solve their problems. No, however much you try to convince me of the opposite - the fourth estate in Russia may not be very strong, but people's faith in it is huge.

In principle a summer temperature of over 30° in Orenburg is quite normal. But only for the middle of summer, not 3 months in a row! Even steppe people find it extreme and very uncomfortable, though the Orenburg Region has a harsh continental climate: +40° in the summer and -40° in the winter. Not much rain.

Orenburg map

Kazakhstan and the deserts of Central Asia are on the doorstep of the Orenburg region.

We live a long way from seas and oceans, but the semi-desert of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Central Asia are on our doorstep. When you come to our region for the first time (overall area 124,000 sq.km) the first thing you notice will be the vast expanses of steppe, wheatfields and a few wooded areas. This year everything has been burnt up by the heat wave.

The director of the Orenburg Steppe Reserve was telling me about an especially sore subject for him. We were just getting ready to start welcoming tourists, he said, to show them our vast spaces and show off our Schrenki tulips and marmots. But it was over 30° for the whole of May, so all the flowers burnt up without even coming into bloom. And somehow the hunters (or photo hunters to be more precise) weren't too keen to go chasing marmots in the burning sun. That's not counting poachers, of course. They don't wait for invitations. Recently one amateur breeder of these priceless animals lost 100 skins valued at 4m roubles to thieves. And, by the way, a steppe marmot fur coat will cost upwards of 1000 USD. The story is that at one time there was a village called Blak in the Svetlinsky District of the Orenburg Region. It got its name from a gold digger called Blake. He didn't waste his time or energy on digging. He trapped marmots and put them into fairly shallow pits. The animals instinctively got down to work: they were like little excavators, digging out the earth. All the cunning Mr Blake had to do was to go through the earth mounds very carefully. It's said he did actually find some gold.

The heat is difficult for animals too. In summertime wild animals usually try not to cross man's field of vision. Today for the sake of a loaf of bread they are ready to make friends with their main enemy. They're grateful to the foresters who leave food out for them.  There's no grass, after all, it's all burnt…

Orenburg steppe

Steppe winters are cold and wet with strong winds and blowing snow. Summers are hot and dry with temperatures that can reach above 40 degrees C.

During the heat the Reserve has to plough every week. You can't turn the earth over with a tractor, because everything will be engulfed in flames. A month ago Orenburgers woke up to acrid smoke – the whole town was covered in smog. The nearest peat bogs are some 500km away from us. But we are our own worst enemies. Man is a real beast. Today my husband rang me at the dacha, where I am with the children (he is at work). He told me that the evening before he had at last made time to look at the news on the internet. He was in a state of shock: forests and villages are burning in the Nizhni Novogorord, Voronezh, Samara and Rostov regions. People have died. Moscow is gasping in the peat smog. Heaven protect us. You can look endlessly at a fire, but not when it's an act of God.

The children are happy. They spend all day in the swimming pool, diving and splashing each other. I want to do that too. I have a shower. Tomorrow the whole family is going to the waterfalls. It turns out that we do have such things in our steppe. Hardly Niagara, of course, not even sandbars like in Bashkiria or Altai, but there are really quite nice little waterfalls on the river Yangiz. 

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about our officials going on a river trip with their Kazakh colleagues. It's one of their hobbies – using government money to sail gently down the river Ural. Looks official and above board. They had scientists with them and other freeloaders: they were investigating damage done to the river in Soviet and post-Soviet times and what should be done to preserve this formerly magnificent source of water (not for nothing was it called Old Man Ural) for future generations. A worthy mission, and, more importantly, ongoing. It would have been fine if our dear officials had made one trip and come up with a result straight away, but they've been making regular excursions for the last 3 years. This one is the 3rd this year (they took party members along with them – there are elections coming up, after all). Each time it's well done, with hospitality included and…..each time they exclaim at how shallow the river has become and how something must be done to save it. It all sounds so sincere that I might even shed a tear, if I weren't so angry. Perhaps it's time to stop to stop the idle chatter and actually do something.

Ural river

The Ural is the third longest river in Europe and the last one unaffected by river regulation or damming.

For the money they splashed out on the trip they could have cleaned up at least 100m of river and over the last 3 years that would have amounted to several kilometres. The other thing that really fills me with curiosity is whether officials in Europe get up to similar tricks or is it our special Russian know-how?

The heat doesn't seem so bad at the dacha. At least I can think here – there's a slight breeze and I manage a bit of reflection. The cocks crowing make sleeping in the morning difficult. Our next door neighbours on both sides have chickens;  one of them even has two rabbits she's fattening up, Dusya and Musya. And a tortoise that takes the air in a pool improvised out of a lorry tyre. Our neighbours joke that their grandson sent it to them for a holiday. Our cat Kuzya just keeps digging…probably looking for buried treasure. He doesn't give a fig for the mice, who prance about under the table. They're not bothered by the heat any more than Kuzya is by catching mice.

There is a downside to dacha life though. Almost all our fruit has  burnt up. Redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and strawberries – bit by bit it's all disappeared. There won't be much this year. We're used to buckets of it – there's usually enough to eat your fill and to bottle it for the winter. This year there'll be no stewed fruit, jam or salted vegetables.  What we do have in plenty, however, is aphids: they've eaten the cucumbers and nibbled the cabbages peas, radishes and beans. They may be God's creatures, but….less than a millimetre long, and so much damage!

But all this is as nothing compared to the mood of the farmers. City dwellers are sure of their work. It's easier to buy something than grow it oneself. Though in the spring my husband did actually plant potatoes at the dacha on a patch 4 x 4 metres. He banked them up, protected them from Colorado beetle, weeded, watered and fertilised. He paid them more attention than he ever paid me. But to be brief…the other day I asked him to dig up some new potatoes for supper. We were going to have them with garlic, herbs and sour cream from the farmer…delicious! He came in furious with a heap of tiny, dirty potatoes.  He said he'd been digging for an hour and this was the result. Now I understand what buried treasure the cat is looking for…he's vegetarian! I have a shower to wipe away the tears of laughter, which has made me so hot.

So…the farmers. For professional reasons I keep abreast of crop and milk yields, animal weights and litters. I know from experience that farmers are like fishermen – there's always something wrong. Rain is bad, heat is worse, cattle have to be slaughtered, fuel is always expensive, wages are low, citydwellers are idle, middlemen are bloodsuckers, etc. But I'm still sorry for them, as they really struggle to make a living.

This year everyone has taken out loans, but there's no means of paying them back. The winter crops have completely burnt up and the buckwheat is limp. Maize was planted for food, but will be harvested for silage. Last year the yield was 160 hundredweight, this year they'll be lucky if they get 100. Even watermelons find this heat difficult! They can put down roots to a depth of 1.5 or 2 metres in search of water, but the drought goes down that far too. The plan for haymaking has only been half completed. The fat content of the cows' milk has fallen, so the milk yield has too. I've talked to farmers who are desperate – how are they going to feed their cattle? A hay bale costs upwards of 100 roubles – last year it was 40-50. Dairy farmers daren't put up prices for milk and sour cream, so they almost give them away. Middlemen, on the other hand, have no problem charging citydwellers three times as much as usual. True, meat is a bit cheaper. There's no feed for the cattle, so the farmers send them for slaughtering. 

Winter this year is going to be very difficult. My farmer friend has taken the decision to develop his business by changing direction next year. He says he'll breed camels and grow sorghum. And I support him. Sorghum can replace barley and build up reserve stocks of feed; in the last century camels were the most reliable form of cattle. Their milk can be used and their hides are useful. My mother has a camel hair blanket which has served her faithfully for 40 years. And they don't need showers…..I feel as though it's time for some more hydrotherapy.

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