Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Freeze Grips Kazakstan

Deaths and disruption as country faces prolonged extreme weather conditions.
By IWPR Central Asia
Prolonged freezing weather in Kazakstan has left people struggling to cope with a combination of extremely low temperatures and heavy snow. Several people died from cold in January, according to the ministry for emergency situations.

Roads and schools have been closed and drivers told to stay at home. Doctors have had to amputate frostbite-affected limbs.

The worse affected areas are the northern, north-eastern and central parts of Kazakstan. Eastern Kazakstan saw the lowest temperature recorded this year when it dropped to minus 46.2 Celsius on January 20.

With average winter temperatures ranging from minus five in the south to around minus 20 in the north, the people of Kazakstan are used to the cold. In recent years, some areas of the north and northeast have occasionally seen minus 40.

The head of long-term forecasting with Kazakstan’s national weather centre, Farida Muratova, said this year’s cold spell had been unusually long, “If the temperature fell like this in previous years, it did not last long. A week or ten days and then it used to warm up slowly.

“Now the cold is holding on for a fourth week. And most importantly, precipitation has been several times the normal amount,” said Muratova.

The exact number of victims is unclear because the emergency ministry, which issues its statistics at the end of the month, records only those cases it deals with during rescue operations. Its figures do not include people picked up by ambulance, and hospitals do not keep a separate statistics on cold-related admissions.

There have also been fatalities from house fires caused by leaving stoves alight. The emergency ministry did not have separate figures for such accidents, but provided an overall figure of 38 deaths in both industrial and house fires for the month of January.

The fire brigade in Petropavlovsk, in the centre of North Kazakstan region, has struggled to cope with fire alerts, a local fireman told IWPR. In some cases, they ran out of water, a problem exacerbated by freezing hoses.

The heating network was out of order for several days in Solnechny, a settlement in eastern Kazakstan, when water froze in a pipe. Four prisons located there and several apartment blocks lost heat, affecting more than 4,000 people.

A pensioner from Solnechny who gave her name as Lyudmila told IWPR that people were having to use more electric heaters, which put a burden on the family budget, “Electricity bills are huge because electric heaters use a lot of energy.”

She said problems with the heating were common, “I have lived in this settlement for 20 years and I don’t remember any repair work being done on heating pipelines or at the boiler station.”

“There are accidents every year and we are constantly without heating. Yet we always pay our bills on time,” said Lyudmila.

The repair works have been completed, according to a report on February 4 on the website of the emergency situations department in eastern Kazakstan.

The head of the department in eastern Kazakstan, Ruslan Nurbatchanov, told IWPR that roads were being closed every night from 4 pm to 9 am for all passenger vehicles and buses and all diesel vehicles.

The department for emergency situations in the southeastern Almaty region reported that the main highway linking the financial capital Almaty with Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk), in eastern Kazakstan was also being closed at night.

Rescue services had to free 268 people and 24 cars from a snowdrift on this road near the town of Usharal on January 28.

Some people have suffered frostbite. Magiza Kasenova from the ambulance service in Oskemen said, “The current cold is a serious test for doctors. Some frostbite has led to tragic results for patients with limbs having to be amputated.”

In an interview with the Vremya newspaper published on February 9, Kasenova said, “Last week eight people with frostbite were brought into the casualty department.”

The deputy governor of East Kazakstan region, Serik Abdenov, asked national government to provide financial help for his province at a meeting on January 25.

He was quoted by official news agency Kazinform as saying that snowfall in the region was up to three times the annual average, and in some places five times as much, “We are asking for 350 million tenge [over two million US dollars] for fuel and payments to private transport companies.”

Other regions have sent additional vehicles to help with road clearing.

The education ministry said schools in the northern and northeastern region were closed and in Oskemen, college and university students were asked to stay indoors.

Mother of three Dina Orazalieva from Petropavlovsk told IWPR, “I have two children who go to primary school. As a mother, I’m worried that they’ve missed so many lessons this year because of the cold – I can’t imagine how they are going to catch up. I don’t even know what’s best, to stay home and not go to lessons, or to freeze in the classroom.”

The emergency ministry recorded 27 avalanches in mountainous parts of Kazakstan since the beginning of the year. The main road linking Almaty with the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek was also closed.

Taxi driver Artur Ibraev from Almaty told how he and his passengers were caught by a road closure on the way to the Korday pass, so that what would normally be a three-hour trip took nearly five hours.

“When we arrived, we saw a kilometre of cars ahead of us and they were all at a standstill,” he said.

Muratova from the weather centre said temperatures were now forecast to start rising.

Natalya Napolskaya is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kazakstan.