Kremlin bids to tackle worst drought in decades

Tuesday 1431/8/1 - 2010/07/13
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MALOBYKOVO, July 13, 2010, SPA -- President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday ordered urgent action to tackle the worst Russian drought in decades, which farmers say has destroyed crops covering an area the size of Portugal, Reuters reported.
Since late June central parts of European Russia, the Volga region, southern Urals and Siberia have been suffering from scorching heat, temperatures often reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the shade.
"This is a big problem. There has been no anomaly like this in our country for decades," Medvedev told a government meeting in the agricultural Belgorod region near Ukraine. "We need to figure out how we can preserve at least some of the crop."
Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik said farmers in the worst-hit regions were facing bankruptcy and had asked the state for 40 billion roubles ($1.3 billion) in loans, and Medvedev ordered officials to increase credit to them.
A state of emergency has been imposed in 16 Russian regions.
"It's a major calamity, the situation is extremely serious," said Viktor Zubkov, the first deputy prime minister responsible for agriculture.
The Russian Grain Union, an industry lobby, said the drought was Russia's worst in 130 years and had already shrivelled grain on 9 million hectares -- an area the size of Portugal and about one fifth of the total area sown for this year's harvest.
The combined losses of Russia's farming industry could total $1 billion this year, the Kommersant business daily reported. Zubkov said it would take a month to even calculate the losses.
Skrynnik said the government may lower its forecast for this year's grain harvest again, to 85 million tonnes from an earlier target of 97 million tonnes, but no food shortages are expected.
Massive reserves of 24 million tonnes after last year's 97 million tonne harvest will make up for the smaller crop this year, she said.
Similar weather conditions have occurred only five times -- in 1919, 1920, 1936, 1938 and 1972 -- since Russia started recording temperatures 130 years ago, said Valery Lukyanov, deputy head of Russia's main weather forecaster Roshydromet.
"This is the sixth year in history when late June and early July pose a real threat from the point of view of abnormal temperatures," he told Reuters, adding that Moscow could set its own record if temperatures hit 37C.
The capital's previous high of 36.6 was registered in 1936, Lukyanov said. "God forbid us to set such records," he added.
The heat is a boon for vendors of ice-cream, soft drinks and beer. Restaurants with outside seating are packed and sales of air conditioners and electric fans have soared.

-- SPA
20:14 LOCAL TIME 17:14 GMT