Almost as much as Venice, St Petersburg’s history is bound up with the very swampy delta from which it rose. Built on the Neva river at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the city is Russia’s largest port, but water could also prove St Petersburg’s undoing, as time and time again the Gulf of Finland has risen up to engulf the city, leaving destruction and ruin in its wake. Some flooding is an annual occurrence, but three times in the city’s 300-year history—in 1777, 1824, and 1924—there have been devastating floods.
As is happening in Venice, the danger of damaging floods is now serious. St Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, alarmed by mid-October flooding that saw the Neva rise 220 centimetres above the norm, has asked the federal government for funding to complete the half-finished Flood Protection Barrier, a few kilometres offshore in the Gulf of Finland.
“The possibility of a catastrophic flood, which scientists have predicted, is quite strong”, Mr Yakovlev wrote in a letter to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov late last year in a direct request for funds.
The governor has asked for 953 million rubles ($42.2 million) from the 1999 budget, which has yet to be passed by the Russian parliament.($42.2 million) from the 1999 budget, which has yet to be passed by the Russian parliament. If sufficient financing were to continue thereafter, the Barrier would be fully operational by 2004.
Given Russia’s financial woes, there is, however, little chance that the money will be forthcoming. In the 1998 budget, while 153 million rubles were allocated to the barrier, only 13 million were received. The final price tag for a fully completed, state-of-the-art barrier is a cool $1 billion, according to the governor.
“Today we cannot protect the city,” said Vladimir Lesogorov, the head of Sea Barrier, the State-owned organisation disbursing funds for, and overseeing construction of, the barrier. “The damage from a catastrophic flood will far outstrip the cost needed to complete the barrier. A flood of just three metres would inundate the entire historic centre of the city.”
Cultural institutions are trying to shore themselves up against the impending disaster. Director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, assured The Art Newspaper that all the collections are kept on the upper floor and allowed the writer to inspect the entire basement which contains no works of art, but technical plant.
Staff at the Hermitage are regularly trained in flood-response, and, as part of the general reconstruction of the museum, a modern system of drainage is currently being installed to pump water rapidly out of the basement in the event of flooding.
Still, many look to completion of the barrier, which has been under way in fits and starts since its inception in 1979, as the best line of defence. Currently, the barrier is a little more than half-finished, standing about three metres above water level, though parts of it are crumbling back into the sea.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, floods in St Petersburg have little to do with heavy rains, but rather are caused by atmospheric cyclones that move across the Baltic Sea from the southwest
These cyclones, which have an average width of 1,000 kilometres, pull the sea water upward, dragging it along the Baltic Sea in the form of high waves. Those waves then come crashing down on land’s end in the vicinity of St Petersburg, and as more water is pulled eastward by the cyclone so rises the water level. Other factors contribute to the risk of a major deluge, such as global warming.
Mr Lesogorov said, “We are currently in that period of heightened risk when nearly all of the determining factors are occurring at the same time.”
For these reasons, independent, international experts agree that the barrier must be completed. “The barrier should be completed in the near future due to the risks of further deterioration of the unfinished construction, and of course the continued exposure of the city,” said Dr Herman Gerritsen, head of Oceanography at the Delft Hydraulics Institute in the Netherlands, who is working closely with local barrier officials to create a system of Integrated water management.
According to Dr Gerritsen, eleven experts from six countries, with specialisations ranging from construction aspects, engineering, fisheries, biology, marine pollution, sediment transports, and waste water treatment, concluded that the barrier was needed and that the drastic deterioration of the ecological system of Neva Bay had many causes, including the dumping of waste into the Neva. Now, however, the federal government is basically bankrupt .
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Aqua Alta on the Neva'