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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parched Area Waits for Rain

For a growing number of Kaliningrad residents, the biggest headache these days isn’t caused by living standards or concerns about how to survive the upcoming winter. Or even whom to vote for in next month’s elections. On the contrary, the most acute problem in this part of the world is how to take a proper bath.

That’s what is on everyone’s mind these days: water, water, water. Many Muscovites, and especially the expat community living in the capital, bemoan the three-week deprivation of hot water during the summer. To realize how good they have it, they should take a short trip to Kaliningrad — where there is virtually no water at all, and where, if it doesn’t rain in a hurry, residents will have to lug their buckets and canisters to specially designated water-distribution points for a bit of H2O.

Try to imagine getting up in the morning, turning on the faucet and — whoooo — hearing the sound of subterranean air passing through the pipes. Try cooking dinner and washing the dishes with this air. Or laundering your clothes with it. If that isn’t enough to break your survivalist skills, try flushing down, with that same air, what nature just left in the toilet. After several days of this lifestyle, after you have forgotten what it means to take a shower, you will begin to notice that dogs are barking louder as you walk by.

It’s an agonizing way to live. For those who have the misfortune of living in a flat on the fourth or fifth floors of the ubiquitous five-story panel houses that deform the city landscape, the situation is quite dire. A thin trickle of cold water appears at about 6:30 a.m. and vanishes about an hour and a half later. The pressure is so weak that toilets often fail to fill up. At night, the routine is much the same, with no more than two hours of a weak stream of cool water before midnight, when water is turned off in many areas of the city. Of hot water many residents can only dream.

The fault for the situation lies, as with so much in this country, with "corner-cutting" Soviet planning. Instead of modernizing the municipal water system inherited from the Germans, bureaucrats in the ’60s and ’70s decided to "wing it" with existing technology. As a result, Kaliningrad currently boasts one of the most outmoded, underdeveloped and ecologically unsafe water supply systems in all of northern Europe.

Almost half of the city’s water comes from the same system built in East Prussia from 60 to 100 years ago; the system consists of 16 freshwater lakes and a maze of interconnecting canals. Rather than taking water from beneath the ground, the system depends upon the gifts of Mother Nature to be replenished. When precipitation is nil, as has been the case for the last month, the lakes start to dry up fast.

Maximum water reserves amount to 18 million cubic meters; "useful" reserves are now less than 8 million cubic meters. Considering that Kaliningrad uses nearly 200,000 cubic meters per day, the city has about three weeks left before its residents get an unforgettable case of "dry mouth."

Vodokanal, the municipal organization in charge of the water supply, is racked by debt and scraping to get by. Its debts amount to 110 million rubles (almost $4 million), or more than one year’s revenues, and only last month was it finally given a tariff increase. No new systemic facilities have been built since 1979, and the lakes were last cleaned by the Germans before they fled the territory in 1945.

Thankfully, the federal government is aware of the problem — as are the governments of Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Last year, these parties compiled a $59.2 million credit agreement that will revamp Kaliningrad’s water-supply system and eventually bring on line 60,000 cubic meters of fresh underground water, thereby making the entire system less dependent on precipitation. Remarkably, more than $30 million will be disbursed in the form of grants by Kaliningrad’s ecologically conscientious neighbors, who must look upon this enclave with a mixture of trepidation and pity.

At this point, however, the only thing that can save us from long days of scratching is a lot of rain. To that end, I’m even prepared to perform a human sacrifice. I’m sure any Muscovite would be, too.

Gary Peach is an independent journalist living and working in Kaliningrad.