As many countries struggle with flooding from unusually high levels of rainfall, Russia is experiencing a severe heatwave.
Temperatures over the past two weeks have soared up to 40 degrees Celsius, causing the worst drought in over 100 years. With minimal rain and scorching temperatures, winter wheat crops may be reduced by up to 50% and Russia’s Grain Union president said approximately nine million out of 48 million hectares of seeded area have been affected. A state of emergency has been called in 16 Russian regions, where the government will increase loans to help farmers avoid bankruptcy. But Russian officials do not anticipate any problems in meeting domestic consumption, since the country still has carry-over stocks of grain from last season. But though ordinary Russians are unlikely to suffer from higher food prices, the drought is taking its toll in other ways. Seeking relief from the heat, more than 1,200 Russians have drowned over the past weeks.
According to officials, many of these deaths are drink-related. Adults have got into difficulties by swimming while intoxicated. But the death toll also includes children, the worst incident happening at a summer camp, where 12 children drowned while the employees supposed to be looking after them were too drunk to notice.
Russia has long suffered from high rates of alcoholism. The average Russian consumes about 18 litres (32 pints) of pure alcohol, mainly Vodka, every year. This causes a huge problem in the country. Russia’s mortality rate amongst men of reproductive age is extremely high. It is estimated that half of all deaths between the ages of 15 and 54 are alcohol-related. This has lead to Russia becoming one of the few countries in the world where life expectancy has declined over the last five decades. According to official data from 2006, Russian men live an average of 60 years, compared to the European average of 75.
In an attempt to tackle this problem, the government introduced restrictions on the price of vodka from 1 January this year, making the lowest price for a half-litre bottle 89 roubles (around 3 dollars). But since illegally produced vodka is readily available at half this price, it is not difficult for ordinary Russians to obtain cheap alcohol. The high number of premature deaths is having a significant impact on Russia’s population, already declining due to a lower birth rate. A study sponsored by the UN, estimated that Russia’s population could shrink from 142 million people to 100 million by 2050. This could impede economic development as foreign companies might choose to invest elsewhere and place a greater strain on the tax and welfare system, with fewer people in the workforce. What is really needed is a change in culture and attitude. Until that happens, alcohol abuse will continue to be a huge social problem impacting on the lives and wellbeing of Russia’s families.