Not waving but drowning in Moscow

Click to follow
Take any capital city and make a guess: how many people do you think drown there in an average summer month? Ten, perhaps? Twelve? Even 20 does not sound implausible. So what on earth is going on in Moscow?

An incredible 116 people drowned after plunging into Moscow's rivers, lakes and ponds between June and the end of the first week of July according to the city's ambulance service.

There were no collapsing road bridges, no sinking passenger ferries, no packed trains plunging into lakes. Just one death after another, and another. The figure is another contributor to a demographic crisis that last year saw Russia's population decrease by 430,000 - the equivalent of a city the size of Edinburgh - setting the average life expectancy for a male at a mere 59 years.

It comes as no surprise to the Russians. While about 750 people drown every year in the United Kingdom, Russia regularly overtakes that figure within one summer month.

The population of 147 million is nearly three times that of Britain, but the number of drownings is 22 times higher. By contrast, an average of just over six Londoners drowned each month last year. The picture is the same throughout Russia, where 16,157 people last year went to a watery grave according to government statistics.

That figure, though horrifying, was lower than the carnage of 1995 when a record 20,458 drowned, more than a third of the total number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War in a decade. This heavy toll partly reflects the Russian tradition of spending summer weekends picnicking on the banks of rivers and lakes. Add to that a lack of public swimming baths, poor rescue services, dismal safety education, a population that has no money for other leisure activities, and some notoriously treacherous waterways, and the dimensions of the problem become clearer.

The figures for winter are also surprisingly high: 215 people drowned throughout Russia in January, including a sizeable number of fishermen who fell through ice.

Alcohol abuse also plays a terrible role. Last month's list of the dead only included seven children; the rest were adults, of whom a large number were intoxicated.

According to Ivan Zelentsov, spokesman for Moscow's Civil Defence service, just under one third of those who drown in his area are drunk (an estimate which many Russians will consider conservative). "People are irresponsible. They try to swim in every possible lake or pond," he said.

A collapsed health care system, smoking, bad diet, pollution, and general economic decline bear much of the blame for Russia's shrinking population. Some demographers expect it to drop to 123 million over the next 33 years.

But accidents are also proving to be a huge killer. In 1995, a quarter of the Russian male deaths were the results of accidents and alcohol poisoning. The average age of the victims was 42 years, which suggests that Russia is losing manpower at a catastrophic rate.

One leading demographer, Sergei Yermakov, claims the country lost 2,000,000 working years in 1995 because of premature deaths, depriving the economy of potential earnings of $20bn.

And if those statistics aren't bad enough, then there's more bad news. Muscovites who persist in braving the treacherous waterways in the city face a new peril: traces of cholera have been detected in the water in five separate places.