Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Saturday, 31 July 2010 11:30 UK

The dangers of Moscow's heatwave

Boys cooling down in Moscow fountain

By Martin Vennard
BBC News

Temperatures in Russia this summer have been the highest since records began more than 100 years ago, and the heat is taking its toll on the city.

As I looked out across the lazily flowing Moscow River at Arkhangelskoye, just outside the Russian capital, I thought it would be the ideal place to take a swim.

When friends offered to bring my family to this 18th Century stately home in their air-conditioned car, away from the heat of Moscow, we seized the opportunity, like a dehydrated man grasping a cold drink he has spotted in the desert.

Much of Moscow is made of concrete, and running around all day looking after a toddler in the middle of a heatwave is no fun.

At night you lie sleepless on top of the bed sheets in your apartment, with poor ventilation and a central heating pipe in the bathroom that cannot be turned off.

Swimming risk

Since the beginning of July, temperatures in Moscow have regularly been reaching 35 degrees Celsius. That is plus 35, not minus 35 - a temperature not unknown during the Moscow winter.

Earlier this week, the mercury in the thermometer outside our window topped 37 degrees - notching up the highest temperature in Moscow since records began more than 100 years ago.

Since the start of the season scores of people in Moscow alone have drowned while trying to cool off

Muscovites have been wilting and tarmac has been melting, while ice-cream and cold-drink vendors have been cashing in and selling out.

But in the shade at Arkhangelskoye, life is cool.

An object floating in the river briefly caught my eye, but I thought nothing more of it as I admired the beauty of our surroundings and we set up a picnic on the bank.

Minutes later, our tranquillity was shattered when an ambulance arrived.

The paramedics rowed a boat into the river and proceeded to drag the object out. It turned out to be the body of a man who had drowned two days earlier.

A small crowd of people gathered to watch the body being hauled ashore.

Then, apparently unperturbed, they immediately returned to their swimming and sunbathing. I wondered if I was the only one to have second thoughts about splashing about there.

The man was another victim of a spate of drownings.

Grey haze

It is not just temperatures that have been setting records this summer in Russia.

Moscow skyline in smog
The city has been shrouded in smog because of nearby forest fires

Since the start of the season, scores of people in Moscow alone have drowned while trying to cool off.

Many of the victims have got in to trouble while taking a dip after drinking far too much.

It is not uncommon to see men, but also some women, downing bottles of beer and vodka then staggering into rivers, lakes and reservoirs where it is clearly marked that bathing is strictly forbidden, because the water is either too dirty or dangerous or both.

Hot and bothered members of the militsiya (the police) have been coming round the large pond near our apartment to order people out of the murky water.

But given the heat and lack of safe outdoor swimming facilities in Moscow, it is hardly surprising that people take the plunge again as soon as the officers turn their backs.

Drinking and drowning is not the only hazard in the heatwave. Dozens of forest and peat-bog fires have been burning just outside the capital.

The city has been enveloped in a grey haze for much of the last week.

Driving warning

One of Russia's leading lung experts has appeared on television, warning people to stay indoors and keep their windows shut as much as possible, to avoid the harmful particles from the fires.

In these temperatures, the suggestion would be laughable if it was not so serious.

The doctor likened the dangers of breathing in the air to those of smoking up to two packets of cigarettes in just a few hours.

The city authorities have asked people to try to avoid exacerbating the dangerous conditions by not driving into the centre.

But with stifling temperatures in some Metro stations, the lure of an air-conditioned car (if you have access to one) beats sweating on public transport.

Those who can have escaped the city to their country dachas, while some factories and offices have given people time off or shortened the working day.

Not so for the hundreds of thousands of Central Asian migrant workers who appear to be keeping many parts of the city going.

They cannot afford the luxury of holidays.

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SEE ALSO
Deadly forest fires ravage Russia
30 Jul 10 |  Europe
Russian deaths mount in heatwave
15 Jul 10 |  Europe

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