Russia swelters in heatwave, many crops destroyed

MOSCOW Fri Jul 16, 2010 2:11pm BST

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Soaring temperatures across large swathes of Russia have destroyed nearly 10 million hectares of crops and prompted a state of emergency to be declared in 17 regions.

On Friday the state-run Moscow region weather bureau said it expected the heatwave, which has gripped the country since late June and is estimated to have already cost the agricultural sector about $1 billion, to continue into next week.

Saturday could see temperatures in Moscow hit 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit), which would break the previous record of 36.6C. set in 1936.

"It looks like tomorrow could just break the record," the weather bureau's Moscow head Yelena Timakina said.

The high temperatures and tinder dry land have exacerbated the problem of forest fires. Billowing smoke and orange flames encircle Moscow as peat and forest fires resist attempts to extinguish them.

A state of emergency due to what the grain lobby says is the country's worst drought in 130 years, has now been imposed in 17 Russian regions, up from 16 earlier this week.

The area affected sprawls from the southern Urals and central European Russia to the Volga, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on Friday. A state of emergency might be declared in a further two regions.

As of Thursday crops on a combined area of 9.6 million hectares have been destroyed. This comprises some 12 percent of all lands sown to crops in Russia, or a territory roughly the size of Hungary.

LESS GRAIN, HIGHER PRICES

Analysts have said that after months of low inflation Russia may again miss its 2010 target as food prices are set to rise toward the end of the year, but Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach said it was too early to review the inflation forecast.

"So far there are no grounds to review the 2010 inflation target. Russia targets 7 percent inflation in 2010. Prices are up by 4.6 percent compared to the start of the year," he said.

SovEcon agricultural analysts on Friday cut their forecast for Russia's 2010 grain crop further down to below 75 million tonnes from 77-81 million tonnes.

SovEcon kept its forecast for wheat crop at 49-51 million tonnes but cut it for barley crop to 11-13 million tonnes from the previous estimate of 12-14 million tonnes.

The Agriculture Ministry said: "In the Volga and separate regions of the Central, Urals and Southern federal districts, lower grain yields and total grain harvests are forecast due to the adverse affect of the drought." It did not elaborate.

Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik said earlier this week the government may lower its forecast for this year's grain harvest again, to below 85 million tonnes from the original target of 97 million tonnes.

The Emergency Ministry said on Friday the amount of peat burned in the Moscow region so far this year was four times higher than last year, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

With his back turned on a fire ripping through a forest about 130 km (81 miles) southeast of Moscow, the deputy head of the ministry's Moscow region said rapidly drying soil was causing flames to spread fast.

"If there is an open fire somewhere, then wind could spread the sparks to the distance of 20-30 metres and we have to catch the fire," Alexei Gudiyev told Reuters.

(Additional reporting and writing by Dmitry Solovyov, Gleb Bryanski and Alexander Reshetnikov; Editing by Matthew Jones)