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Russia’s strange acceptance of the sewage pit

Sewer systems in Russia have been neglected for decades. Many citizens do not even have access to working water closets, and some public infrastructure has literally collapsed due to unmaintained sewage lines. However unattractive this fact may be, it should be taken seriously as it attests to wider societal problems in Russia.

April 16, 2019 - Yury Lobunov - Articles and Commentary

Public toilet in the Novosibirsk Metro Photo: К. Artyom (cc) wikimedia.org

It caused an information storm when it became known that every fifth Russian did not have access to warm, working water closets. The problem, however, extends far more deeply, widely and sadly than just that.

Planned accidents

A terrible accident happened in the provincial Russian city of Bryansk when a mother, who was walking with her young child along public sidewalks, fell into a portion of the walkway that had collapsed due to the stress of an unmaintained sewer pipe in January 2012. The 1.5-year-old boy was swept away by the force of the water and died. The court found the director and the chief engineer of the Water Supply Authority guilty of negligence, allowing the pipes to go unrepaired and thus putting citizens in danger. It was somehow forgotten that one of the “culprits” behind the pipe failure had been ringing the alarm on the subject for years, asking the authorities to take immediate measures to repair the main sewage and water collectors (which had been built in the 1950s and 1960s) and advocating for modernisation, expansion and maintenance since 1987.

However, no repairs were carried out in the late Soviet times or during perestroika – and not even in the “golden early 2000s”, when Russia’s economy was abounding in oil gold. Since the aforementioned child died as a result of falling into the collector in 2012, a number of reports have surfaced saying that several other people in Bryansk have also fallen into the sewer system at different locations. Some of the victims literally sunk into the ground beneath their feet. Thankfully, there were no more casualties: everyone was saved.  

Strange as it may sound, when authorities finally started to think about repairing the potentially dangerous collectors, the city burst into protest. Apparently the inconvenience of having streets blocked due to maintenance works seemed more dangerous in the opinions of the inhabitants than the possible threat of unseen pipes in ill-repair somewhere under the ground. 

However, the failure to take sewer system problems seriously is not solely characteristic of short-sighted city dwellers. Take a look at the following graph to see how the rate of accidents differs between the sewer systems (represented by the red line) and water supply systems (represented by the blue line).

Number of accidents within sewerage and water-supply systems (in per cent since 2000, as per UISIS)

It is clear that everyone notices at once when their flat is disconnected from the water supply and expresses discontent about the problem. But sewer failures are only considered a problem when streets get flooded. So long as the stinking pits are hidden, who cares about the infrastructure? The authorities only react when unhappy people let them know about it, and thus they do not care to take preventive measures.


Construction of sewer network in Russia (in per cent since 2015, as per UISIS)

Russian statistics have been monitoring the development of sewer systems since 2015. Their length (i.e. the distance travelled by the increasing number of pipes), as it turned out, is growing. This is understandable: housing construction continues, with new housing blocks coming – and they too have to be equipped with drainage. At the same time, the main collectors are growing shorter (i.e. are not being expanded). That is, the completely worn-out post-war collectors have to take on an ever-increasing load. This only means that there will be more and more accidents involving sewer systems – so many that they can be considered anticipated and even planned.

Toilet towns

Even though sewer networks are getting longer, the overall amount of housing equipped with water drainage is not increasing as fast, especially in cities. This is demonstrated in the following graph, which shows the change in the share of housing areas connected to the sewer/water system and is broken down by villages (the red line) and cities and towns (the blue line). Note that the sharp downturn in 2014 of the blue line may be explained only by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, where sewerage systems leave much to be desired.

Change of accommodated housing areas equipped with sewer access, (in per cent since 2011, as per UISIS)

Moreover, the average figures do not reflect the horror of the situation in some regions. For example, according to Russia’s Federal Statistics Service, in the cities and towns of Transbaikalial, two out of five people do not have access to a working water closet in their home; in the villages of Buryatia, this figure rises to a shocking nine out of ten. However, in the Moscow region, only half of those living in villages use sewers at all. In the capital city itself, the share of housing equipped with sewage disposal also falls short of the expected total, reaching only 98.3 per cent.

It is clear that in any city – whether it is a megapolis or a provincial regional center – there are houses equipped with cesspools or even classical wooden toilets in, for example, suburbs and slums. Russia also has settlements completely devoid of sewer systems. The most recent data on such settlements that can be found in open statistics are dated as of 2015. Three years ago 40 per cent of the cities in Tyva lived without a drainage system. More than one-fifth of the cities in the Kurgan and Novosibirsk regions did not have sewerage; the same situation was observed in more than 15 per cent of the cities in the Kostroma, Ulyanovsk and Omsk regions.

Number of towns with sewer network access (in per cent from a common date in 2015, as per UISIS)
Number of rural settlements with sewer network access (in per cent from a common date in 2015, as per UISIS)

We are not talking about big villages or urban types of settlements, but about settlements that have the status of a town. In such towns, neither kindergartens, nor hospitals, nor police departments, nor local administrations are connected to any sewer system. The network simply does not exist in these places. More than ten per cent of schools in the cities of Tyva, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Trans-Baikal did not have sewerage in 2015. Less than half of the schools in the villages of Tyva, Zabaikalye, Kalmykia, Dagestan, the Nenets Autonomous District, Yakutia and the Irkutsk Region were connected to a sewer system.

How do Russia’s toilets stack up against the rest?

However, compared to other countries, Russia does not seem so unhygienic. Though does not look like a superpower capable of providing its citizens with basic amenities, it nevertheless takes its place quite confidently between Belarus and Latvia, according to the following graph.

Percentage of housing with flushable toilets by select country (from “Russia and Countries of the World, 2018”, Russian Statistics Agency, including data from Tajikistan, Kirghizia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Japan, Hungary, Poland, Jordan, Denmark, Finland, Austria, the United States and Great Britain)
The share of wastewater treated to standard values, in the total amount of wastewater flowing through treatment facilities in Russia (in per cent in 2017, as per UISIS)

The trouble is that the infrastructure designed to provide water closets in Russia with a flushing cistern is about to breathe its last. Not only is this doomed future suggested by increasing accident statistics, but also by the decreasing efficiency rates of the treatment facilities. In Russia only an average of about 45 per cent of the wastewater that passes through treatment plants is successfully decontaminated. Thus, most stocks of “treated” wastewater do not actually meet the standards to qualify as adequately cleansed water that can then be repurposed or released into the environment. Russia fills itself with sewage, polluting the neighbours unlucky enough to share water bodies with it. 

In some regions, sewage treatment plants are only called so in name, since they barely treat anything. In eighteen regions of Russia, the proportion of water filtered by standard procedures does not exceed ten per cent.

Such a situation could be assessed as an ecological catastrophe, although it must be admitted that, compared to India’s Ganges River or the tiny filthy rivers of some less-developed countries, things are not as bad. Similarly, Russia’s lack of hygienic amenities could be considered savage and archaic but it still appears more cleanly than other nations where cultural customs do not include the use of standard toilets.

Remaining loyal to the cesspool

For a civilised person, horrific figures of sewer statistics sound like a dooming sentence to the country and its culture. But millions of Russians do not know what a clean, warm toilet is, and hence do not feel like savages.

The “golden early 2000s” ushered in an era of a consumerism that encouraged a huge number of Russians to go out and buy cars, smartphones and plasma TVs, to change wooden windows to plastic and to refurbish their apartments in the style of the latest interior design fads. But evidently these years have not radically changed the situation with toilets in Russia. Having joined the newfangled benefits of western civilisation, the people of this great country did not see sewer systems as a high-priority policy item deserving of attention, instead remaining loyal to the cesspools they have known so intimately for so long. And this is probably the saddest statistical fact.

Yury Lobunov is a journalist and analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

This article was first published in Russian by Belsat.eu

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