Colossal floods stun Kazakhstan

Colossal floods stun Kazakhstan
Solider assisting cleaning up a flooded area. / Kazakh defence ministry.
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet March 31, 2024

Entire swathes of Kazakhstan look like a scene from a disaster movie.

Vast amounts of floodwater have destroyed villages and carried away livestock. Social media is filled with images of people clambering for safety onto the roofs of their homes as rescue helicopters circle above.

When spring arrives, Kazakhstan knows to expect runoff water from melting ice and snow, but this year has been a shock. Bridges have been destroyed, entire sections of highway are now underwater, hundreds of homes have been rendered uninhabitable, and many have been left without tap water and household gas. At least three people are believed to have lost their lives.

The floods that began earlier this month have affected at least seven regions, with the north hardest hit. The Emergency Situations Ministry said that as of March 29, around 4,700 people, including almost 1,700 children, have been rescued and evacuated. More than 500 residential buildings are flooded. In some regions, entire government buildings, schools and hospitals are flooded.

Speaking at an emergency government meeting on March 29, Prime Minister Olzhas Bektenov described these as the largest floods in recent years.

“The main thing now is to save people’s lives and minimise the fallout from the disaster,” Bektenov told Emergency Situations Minister Chingis Arinov, who briefed the Cabinet on mitigation measures being adopted.

Bektenov said an investigation would be conducted by the Prosecutor General’s Office into whether the scale of the crisis was compounded by negligence.

The Abai regional department of the Emergency Services Ministry reported on March 29 that a search for three men who went missing during the floods has been going on for the past week. One is believed to have fallen from his horse into a rushing river, after which he was apparently carried away by the stream. Two others tried to cross the same river on a tractor and got stuck. Divers were enlisted to search for the missing men, but that effort had to be suspended due to weather conditions.

Residents of some affected areas have mounted wildcat demonstrations at what they perceive to be inadequate efforts by the authorities to handle the situation. In doing so, they have incurred sanctions.

A court in the northern Akmola region on March 28 fined six residents of the village of Koyandy for participating in an unsanctioned rally. Fifty people in the village had blocked a nearby road in protest at the local authorities failing to clear snow in good time, which they said caused their homes to be flooded.

Although spring floods occur every year, authorities are often unprepared for the costly consequences. Government critics argue that officials are pathologically incapable of learning from experience and even ignore warnings from experts about incoming floods. Officials argue in turn that the natural disasters are growing worse in scale.

A particularly bitter irony is that while Kazakhstan routinely struggles with floods in March-April, the months that follow have often delivered a period of drought.

Kirill Pavlov, the Shymkent-based leader of a farming lobby organisation, says that the government should have long ago learned how to manage meltwater.

“All countries that have water shortage collect every drop of rain, every snowflake, but in our country all the water from the floods is lost. We have never learned to value water,” Pavlov was quoted as saying by Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh service of RFE/RL.

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.