UARU
Russia is Struggling with a Shitty Problem. Literally.
19 April, 2020

“Instead of a toilet we have an outhouse, for water, we go to the pump around the corner, the heating is with wood. We have no amenities other than lights and gas. We order a private sewage truck, it pumps everything out. It costs 2,000 [rubles] ($27).” 

Photo: Anton Unitsyn/Novaya Gazeta

30,000,000 people in Russia are not connected to centralized sewage systems – despite living in the digital age and in an allegedly developed country. 

In a special project, our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta reveals how about a fifth of the Russian population gets by without access to indoor plumbing and the devastating impact this has on the environment.

Photo: Anton Klimov/Novaya Gazeta

Shitty Facts

  • First place: Russia has the largest population share of any developed nation with no access to indoor plumbing 

  • Family values: 45% of Russian families with multiple children are not connected to centralized sewage systems

  • Fetid water: 88% of wastewater does not meet purification requirements, but gets dumped into Russian waterways nonetheless

  • Why are these numbers so high? It’s mainly due to endemic social issues: high poverty levels, the slow decay of rural villages, high tariffs placed on dwindling remote populations, and a lack of municipal rights are all contributing factors

Chapter 1: The Shit-Shuttles of Tula

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

Located less than 200 kilometers south of Moscow, the industrial city of Tula is home to around 549,992 people. And about a fifth of them have no access to centralized sewage systems.

“Every day we wash in a trough, we empty the washing machine into the trough, then we pour everything into buckets and take them out into the yard,” explains Inna Shuvalova. She lives on Pirogova Street, just 250 meters from the regional administration building in Tula. Nevertheless, she has no access to centralized drainage systems.

“Grandmother lives upstairs from us, she doesn’t leave the house – it’s difficult for her to go down the stairs,” Shuvalova continues. “She pours her buckets, including the toilet [bucket], out the window.” 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

Vladimir Meshkov lives on Mendeleevskaya Street, which runs through the city center. Nevertheless, his home is not connected to the sewer lines. As he explains, hooking it up would cost him around $1,300 – plus he’d have to do it himself. 

“Everything from our cesspool runs into the Upa River because the water level is low. There’s drainage nearby, along the street, but laying one [line] costs about 100,000 rubles and you have to dig and carry out [the work] yourself,” Meshkov says.

Instead, he’s hoping that the local government will eventually take on the task. “We are waiting for the upgrade of the city center, maybe we will get lucky... But they don’t tell us anything openly, allegedly everything is classified,” he tells us. 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

Zinaida Batkova also lives on Mendeleevskaya Street, but she’s not so optimistic. “They told us that until 2023 we will be living here without everything: without heating, without water and drainage... We called local journalists, but they cut out all of our complaints and said everything is great, everyone is happy,” she recalls. 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

“We have nothing,” confirms Nadezhda Zhukova, another resident of Mendeleevskaya Street. “Instead of a toilet we have an outhouse, for water, we go to the pump around the corner, the heating is with wood. We have no amenities other than lights and gas. We order a private sewage truck, it pumps everything out. It costs 2,000 [rubles]. ($27)” 

Options for Individual Sewerage

People who lack access to centralized sewage systems in Russia essentially have two options: 1. A personal septic system and 2. An outhouse over a cesspit. 

Option 1 is more expensive, but it does provide a more environmentally friendly and reliable sewage disposal system. Unlike in a pit latrine, the wastewater undergoes treatment – either mechanically or biologically – so it requires little pumping. That said, these require regular maintenance and a designated space, while the models with the best cleaning options also need to be connected to electricity.

Option 2 is definitely cheaper – outhouses are typically built over an underground “tank” made of wood, concrete, or plastic. Liquids from the cesspool are gradually absorbed into the soil, passing through a drainage layer of gravel, while solid waste accumulates in the “tank.” 

Although Russia does have sanitary regulations for these types of pit latrines, in practice these standards are rarely met. Furthermore, these set-ups require regular servicing from sewage trucks (to remove solid waste). Plus there’s the fact that they offer no wastewater treatment whatsoever and cause a number of environmental hazards, ranging from unpleasant odors to toxic gases.

While the residents of Tula continue to rely on outhouses and cesspits as they await improvements to local infrastructure, the city’s sewage truck operators are waging a war. The two sides are divided between those working on the “white” and “black” markets – and a quasi-power structure has emerged as they compete for customers.

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

“This business is gold, you can shuttle shit forever,” says Oleg Dyomin, the director of the company Tulagorvodokanal (a “white market” sanitation operator). 

Although he acknowledges that the high demand for sewer removal has even led some of his company’s own truck drivers to try and branch out on their own and work under the table, he also claims that this particular problem is being dealt with. "We will catch them and steer them in a legal direction,” Dyomin says. 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

The way he sees it, competition from the informal economy doesn’t change the fact that private sewer treatment is a lucrative business. “What has always earned money in Russia? Cemeteries, because people are constantly dying. And more and more are always dying – and going to the toilet,” Dyomin maintains.“There will always be sewage trucks, so long as there is no centralized sewage system.” 

Devastating Environmental Impact

“Whereas bodies of water are at least somewhat protected from direct dumping, groundwater through the country is intensively affected by cesspools,” underscores groundwater specialist Mikhail Orlov, an Associate Professor in the Department of Hydrogeology at Moscow State University.

“Most of the population doesn’t know and doesn’t care where the groundwater that flows under their feet is going,” Orlov explains. “Often on purpose, the sides and bottoms of cesspools are not insulated and liquid waste is filtered into the flow of groundwater. This frees residents from having to call a sewage truck regularly.” 

On the other hand, this is exactly what poses an environmental threat. “The groundwater feeds into wells and boreholes in the very same village or town, making their water not only unsuitable [for use], but also dangerous,” Orlov continues. 

Furthermore, this contaminated groundwater feeds into rivers and lakes, which in turn begin to “bloom” with underwater plants and algae that suck the oxygen from both the water and the organisms that live in it. 

“[These] plants and animals tend to accumulate toxic substances and transmit them in increasing concentrations along the food chain to humans,” Orlov warns. “This leads to a variety of serious illnesses.”

Chapter 2: Why is everything so backwards?

Photo: Vlad Nekrasov/Novaya Gazeta

Despite being geographically the biggest country in the world, Russia ranks among the least population-dense places on earth. According to the World Population Review, Russia's population density is just nine people per square kilometer.

By comparison, the world’s second-largest country in terms of territory, Canada, has a population density that is even less than Russia’s – just four people per square kilometer. But the proportion of the Canadian population without access to toilets is just 0.2%. 

Photo: Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia. Aleksey Golovshchikov/Novaya Gazeta

In Russia, building centralized public utility networks is only feasible in larger cities, so many smaller, remote settlements lack even the most basic sanitary facilities. In regions such as the Far North, which is covered in a layer of permafrost, extreme weather conditions make the situation even more difficult. Many of these far-flung settlements have been emptying out for years, so the population is sparse.

Photo: Yakutsk, Siberia. Aleksey Vasilyev/Novaya Gazeta

Moreover, many of these villages have no centralized water supply, which poses a serious sanitary risk for the local population. About 30,000,000 Russians get their water from wells, springs and other local sources of groundwater, which often do not meet sanitary and epidemiological standards.

Photo: Tver Oblast, western Russia. Anastasiya Chistyakova/Novaya Gazeta

But these problems aren’t limited to the country’s rural regions. Smaller cities – some of which have populations of up to 50,000 people – are often similar to villages in terms of domestic amenities. About 6,000,000 Russian residents live in apartment buildings without indoor plumbing. 

Photo: Pskov Oblast, western Russia, on the border with EU states Latvia and Estonia. Oleg Ponomarev/Novaya 

Villages vs. Small Towns

  • 75% of rural households in Russia have an outhouse 

  • 3.5% of individual homes in villages are connected to a centralized sewage system

  • 38% of village residents use a pit latrine or a septic tank

 

  • 28% of households in Russian small towns are without centralized sewage

  • 23% of city dwellers don’t have access to safe toilets

  • > 1,000,000 city dwellers practice “open defecation”

Photo: Tula Oblast. Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

Many of these residential buildings are so rundown that they’re essentially unsafe to live in – but that doesn’t mean that will be replaced. “Today, people are deprived of normal sanitary conditions due to a lack of funding for the construction of residential facilities,” explains the head of Moscow’s Union of Housing Organizations, Konstantin Krokhin. 

Photo: Primorsky Krai, Russian Far East. Mariya Tikhonova/Novaya Gazeta.

Instead, some landlords are opting to solve the issue of wastewater disposal on their own by installing local treatment facilities. However, with around 21,000,000 Russians living in poverty, there are many people who simply can’t afford these “modern solutions.” 

Photo: Tver Oblast. Anastasiya Chistyakova/Novaya Gazeta

“Our population has very low incomes, especially in rural areas. People count every kopek. As such, Russia’s sewerage model, as well as modern latrine systems, are inaccessible to many citizens,” says Andrey Shirokov, a committee chairman at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

Even local authorities often lack funding for water management, despite the fact that they’re supposed to provide their constituents with basic amenities, like heat, water, and gas. 

Photo: Yakutsk. Aleksey Vasilyev/Novaya Gazeta

“Local governments actually have no leverage – neither financial nor organizational – for somehow fulfilling these obligations,” explains Svetlana Ravorotneva, the Executive Director of the housing non-profit GKH Kontrol. “And such small projects are not interesting for private investors, therefore the housing sector can’t do without federal financing.”

Chapter 3: Up Shit Creek

Photo: Irkutsk Oblast. Anton Klimov/Novaya Gazeta

About 88% of all run-off into Russia’s waterways is contaminated. But the real extent of the environmental damage it can do depends on the type of pollution it contains. Domestic wastewater contains a variety of materials but is unlikely to contain poisonous substances other than household chemicals. Industrial wastewater, on the other hand, contains highly toxic pollutants that severely affect the environment. 

None of Russia’s bodies of water are exempt from these types of pollution.

Photo: Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea in the Russian North Caucasus region. Ilyas Khadzhi/Novaya Gazeta

Located near Mongolia in southern Siberia, Russia’s Lake Baikal is considered the deepest lake in the world. Every year it draws nearly 2,500,000 tourists, but despite the growing influx of visitors – and the lake’s special ecological status – there is practically no sewage infrastructure in the area around it. 

In the nearby town of Listvyanka, for example, only about 20% of the population – which is around 2,100 people – are connected to the local sewage works. That means that all other domestic wastewater finds its way into Lake Baikal.

According to Greenpeace’s assessments, 90% of Lake Baikal’s tourism infrastructure operates in violation of environmental legislation. 

Russia’s other hottest vacation spots are often at the center of environmental scandals, as well. Every year, in the midst of tourist season, popular resort cities on the Black Sea, like Sochi and Gelendzhik (a town overlooking the Gelendzhik Bay), face complaints from vacationers and locals about the terrible stench on the beaches, water muddied with fecal contaminants and epidemics of intestinal diseases. 

Photo: A beach on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Nadezhda Matveyeva/Novaya Gazeta

A similar situation is on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. And it’s all because coastal cities drain their sewage into the sea en masse. On the beaches in Koktebel – one of the most popular resort towns in South-Eastern Crimea – local authorities regularly find illegal sewer lines that drain directly into the Black Sea.

Until 2006, Russia’s Kaliningrad Region was in a similar situation, draining all domestic sewage into the Baltic Sea and thereby poisoning nearby E.U. states. In 2009, the European Union began allocating funds for the construction of new sewage treatment facilities, but the project was stalled due to corruption problems. As a result, in the town of Guryevsk, run-off (containing excess levels of ammonia) is dumped into the local network of rivers.

Photo: Yaroslavl Oblast, central Russia. Svetlana Vidanova/Novaya Gazeta

Europe’s longest river, the Volga, also harbors the highest levels of pollution, according to the Russian Ministry of National Resources’ ratings. In fact, 40% of polluted wastewater in Russia flows into the Volga River. What’s more, a significant amount of this wastewater comes from dispersed settlements not equipped with sewer systems, rather than large industrial facilities, making water quality difficult to monitor. 

In the industrial city of Volzhsky, located on the Volga’s east bank, environmentalists estimate that over 1,000,000 tons of liquid waste is drained into the river annually from one local prison colony alone. 

Meanwhile, in the Altai Krai (bordering Kazakhstan in south-western Siberia) wastewater and sewer water are not only poured into bodies of water but also into the local terrain. In regions far from waterways, and without sewage systems, it is legal to drain wastewater into “filtration fields” – a designated plot of land that is used as a landfill for domestic and industrial run-off. 

Photo: Novosibirsk Oblast, southwestern Siberia. Stanislav Denisenko & Vlad Nekrasov/Novaya Gazeta

Of course, this often occurs in violation of environmental laws, as well. Not to mention that these filtration fields are often located near residential areas. In the Talmenka district center, for example, the filtration field is located just 200 meters from residential housing. Local residents complain about the stench, as well as health problems. 

Epilogue: Geopolitics vs. Toilets*

Photo: Anton Klimov/Novaya Gazeta

If Russia were to maintain its current rate of investment, it would take 175 years to modernize the country’s worn-out sewer systems, according to our estimates. But with the National Welfare Fund containing around $108.5 billion in excess returns on oil and gas, this seems like a matter of political will. 

Over the three years of the government implementing its Housing and Utilities Development Strategy (from 2016 to 2018), there was only a 1.3% increase in the number of households that gained access to centralized sewage systems. 

And although access to safe sanitation facilities is one of the main indicators of quality of life, the government seems more preoccupied with rolling out technological advances in the capital like facial recognition surveillance systems and high-speed 5G networks. 

Photo: Krasnodar Krai, southern Russia. Alina Desyatnichenko/Novaya Gazeta

Meanwhile, there are no federal programs or development institutes dedicated to housing and utility services in small towns and rural areas. 

The “death” of the village in Russia is often spoken about as an inevitable process and rural residents are considered “used to” these conditions. The prevailing attitude is that there’s nothing that can be done. But these are just excuses that obscure systemic issues; like the critical deterioration of sewer pipes and sewage treatment plants, the long term decline in the populations’ individual incomes, and the destruction of local self-government. 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

Educational campaigns on personal hygiene cannot solve these kinds of problems. It requires political will and targeted government funding. 

Photo: Arden Arkman/Novaya Gazeta

The decay of public works is not just a consequence of poverty at the bottom and corruption at the top. In Russia, it also fulfills an important social function, serving as a daily reminder for the population that the right to dignity and domestic comfort is not included in the orbit of Russian life. That is why neither the Soviet era of barracks and communal apartments nor the contemporary era of high-rise buildings, has seen sewage become a priority for the country’s leadership.

Geopolitics or toilets? It’s time for Russia to decide. 

*The views expressed in this section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.

/ Translated, edited and abridged by Eilish Hart. Based on the Special Project #Поуши by Anna Artemeva and Arnold Khachaturov of Novaya Gazeta, with contributed reporting by Yuri Zhalin. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.