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Flooding across Russia's west from melting mountain snow and ice forces mass evacuations

Protecting the Planet: Severe weather
Protecting the Planet: The impact of climate change on severe weather 21:18

Moscow — Warm spring temperatures have unleashed torrents on parts of western Russia, where thawing ice and melting mountain snow are swelling some of Europe's biggest rivers and inundating towns and cities along their paths. The southwest Russian city of Orenburg, near the Kazakh border, was bracing for its worst flooding in decades, while to the north, the entire region of Tyumen in western Siberia was put under a state of emergency as the flood risk mounted.

Officials have evacuated thousands of residents from homes along fast-rising rivers in the Urals and western Siberia.

Moscow declared a federal emergency Sunday amid the flooding in the Orenburg region, where the Ural river left much of the city of Orsk covered in water, forcing thousands to leave their homes. 

Rescuers evacuate residents from the flooded part of the city of Orsk, in Russia's Orenburg region, April 8, 2024. ANATOLIY ZHDANOV/Kommersant Photo/AFP/Getty

The river was reaching dangerous levels Monday in the regional capital of Orenburg, a city of 550,000 people.

The Kremlin spoke of a "critical" situation Monday, warning that the floods had "possibly not reached their peak."

Emergency services said Monday that more than 10,000 residential buildings had been flooded, mostly in the Urals, the Volga area and western Siberia. They warned of a "rise in air temperature, active snow melting and the overflow of rivers."

Governor Alexander Moor was quoted by state media as saying all of the Tyumen region would be under a state of emergency until the flooding risk passed.

In the south, much of the city of Orsk was under water after torrential rain caused a nearby dam to burst. Orenburg region authorities said that while the Ural river "went down by nine centimeters (3.5 inches)" in Orsk, water levels in the city of Orenburg were still rising fast.

Evacuation of residents continues after dam bursts in Orsk, Russia
A screen grab from video provided by the Russian Ministry of Emergency shows residents and pets being evacuated from a flooded neighborhood after a dam burst in the city of Orsk, Russia, April 6, 2024. Russian Ministry of Emergency/Anadolu/Getty

The mayor of Orenburg, Sergei Salmin, called on residents in flood-risk zones to leave immediately.

"The water can come at night. Do not risk your lives," he said on social media, warning that water levels would surpass danger marks. "Do not wait for that. Leave right now."

Salmin told Russian television that Orenburg had not "seen so much water" since the last high mark was registered in 1942. "Since then there have been no floods. This is unprecedented."

President Vladimir Putin ordered a government commission to be established on the floods. His spokesman said Putin did not plan on visiting the flood zone but that he was being briefed on "nature anomalies" in real time.  

Putin, who has been a vocal skeptic of man-made climate change for much of his rule, has in recent years ordered his government to do more to prepare Russia for extreme weather events. The country has seen severe floods and fires in recent springs and summers.

Salmin said authorities had evacuated 736 people in Orenburg as they expected the water to rise further.

Over the weekend he warned of forced evacuations if people did not cooperate, saying: "There is no time for convincing."

Russia's weather monitor Rosgidromet said it did not expect the flood in Orenburg to peak until Wednesday and warned that many districts of the city would be affected.

The Ural river flows through Orenburg and into Kazakhstan, where President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the floods were one of the worst natural disasters to affect the area in decades.

More than 13 thousand evacuated due to flood in Kazakhstan
An aerial view provided by a Kazakhstan Ministry of Emergency Situations helicopter shows inundated areas as melting snow causes flooding, blocking transportation in 49 villages in Kazakhstan, April 1, 2024. Kazakh Ministry of Emergency/Handout/Anadolu/Getty

Aerial images of the city of Orsk showed just the top floors and colourful roofs of houses visible over brown water. In the city center, water reached the first floor of buildings.

After evacuating more than 6,000 people across the Orenburg region, authorities also began relocating some residents of the Siberian city of Kurgan near northern Kazakhstan, home to around 300,000 people, where the Tobol river was expected to rise.

Emergency services in Kurgan said 571 people were moved away from areas expected to be flooded.

Authorities said around 100 rescuers had arrived as reinforcements in the western Siberian region from the Urals to prepare for the floods.

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