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Work restarts on St Petersburg flood dam
President Putin is supportive, but funds are still inadequate

After a nearly 14-year hiatus, construction has resumed on St Petersburg’s Flood Protection Barrier, spurred by the prospect of a major flood that could wreak havoc in the city’s historic centre. The relaunch is, however, rather low-key because government financing is not as large as promised, and many are concerned that construction could stall yet again.

An estimated $450 million is still needed to finish the project, which is only about two-thirds complete. Another $300 million will also be needed for a road link with the 25-kilometre barrier that will complete St Petersburg’s 153-kilometre ring road.
The barrier, which lies offshore in the Gulf of Finland, stretches from both sides of the mainland across the island of Kotlin. It is as wide as 200 metres in some spots, and comprises 11 dams separated by hydraulic gates that let water flow in and out of the Neva delta. The barrier—or damba (dam), as it is colloquially known—has been built in fits and starts since its inception in 1979. When complete, it will reach a height of over five metres; it currently stands at just three metres above water level.

“There is a high probability of a catastrophic flood in the near future”, said Rosa Mikhailenko, head of environmental research at Sea Defence, the city organisation responsible for overseeing the barrier project: “The government can no longer ignore this problem”. At the end of 2003, a British company, Halcrow, was picked to complete the designs for the barrier.

According to a report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), over the past 25 years the city has averaged two small floods a year—usually in the autumn—a flood being defined as a water level exceeding 1.6 metres above Mean Baltic Sea Level, but the cost of a 300 cm flood to the city could be catastrophic, far outstripping the expenditure needed to complete the barrier. Such a flood, the report states. “will lead to damage to public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, embankments, flooding of the metro system, overflow of sewerage systems and serious flooding of buildings. This famously includes buildings of historic and cultural value, which are largely located in the low-lying city centre, such as the Hermitage and many other museums”.

Three times in the city’s 300-year history—in 1777, 1824 and 1924—it has been hit by devastating floods. The flood of 1824, when the water level rose 4.21 metres, killed more than 200 people and destroyed 462 buildings. Local archive photographs of the 1924 flood show the extensive damage done to items in the State Russian Museum.

In 1999, the Neva River peaked at 2.66 metres above Baltic Sea level, the largest flood since September 1975, when it rose 2.8 metres, and water was reported in the basements of the State Hermitage Museum, the Marble Palace, and Menshikov Palace, all of which are located on the Neva River embankment. Contrary to some reports, no art is stored in the Hermitage basement

Floods in St Petersburg have little to do with heavy rains, but are caused by low pressure systems, usually occurring in the autumn, that move across the Baltic Sea from the southwest, “pulling” the sea upward. But things worse than seasonal flooding may not be far off. According to Alexander Gorodnitsky, professor at the Oceanography Institute, global warming may cause St Petersburg and other coastal cities, such as Venice, total or partial inundation in the next 20 to 30 years. Other scientists are less pessimistic.

Government officials have been slow to act. While in December 2002 the EBRD pledged a $245 million credit to finance the barrier, that money has been frozen until the Russian government comes up with a significant part of the remaining $450 million total. In 2004, the federal government earmarked only 150 million rubles ($5 million) for the project. The barrier is scheduled for completion by 2010, although many doubt that date will be met unless the government significantly increases its annual funding for the barrier.

“We’ve changed five administrative teams in the past two years, and nothing has been done since the government made the official decision in 2002 to relaunch construction”, said Ms Mikhailenko, who added that she has little faith in the inexperienced new management.
Frustration with the project has even prompted outbursts from St Petersburg-born President Putin.

“A huge amount of money has been spent but, unfortunately, there is no end in sight yet”, he said last year. “I ordered an investigation, and the government has taken some decisions, including providing financial support for the project”. But not nearly enough.