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The leaning houses of Sochi

Russia promised Olympic Games would be green, but reality for Sochi residents is more grim

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The massive Olympic construction footprint has changed groundwater flows, causing a slow-motion landslide.

THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN Enlarge Image

The massive Olympic construction footprint has changed groundwater flows, causing a slow-motion landslide.

Sochi, Russia -- Vladimir Putin promised the Olympics in Sochi would be as green as could be. Instead, the construction of facilities has had disastrous consequences for the environment, particularly for the residents of Baku Street, whose homes have become the victims of man-made erosion.

 

When Tigran Skiba, 52, leaves home in his delivery truck each morning to supply fresh bread throughout Sochi, he gets a view of the new sporting facilities: Fisht Olympic Stadium in the valley and the grand ice-skating palace, which shimmers in the moonlight like a pearl. It looks as if it's all right next door.

Olympia Park is less than two kilometres away from Skiba's home. What worries him these days is the fact this distance isn't remaining constant. The space between his home and the stadium is decreasing, slowly but ever so surely. The hillside upon which his home is built is sliding down into the valley at a pace of 1.5 metres a year, Skiba claims.

Residents of Baku Street had long been puzzled by the erosion that was causing their homes to slide or lean. A thick forest begins just behind the home of Skiba's neighbours. Sometimes they collect firewood there. It's in this forest that they first discovered the reason for the landslide. Excavators there dug out a pit where trucks had been dumping rubble -- waste from the Olympic construction sites. "The garbage dump has altered the groundwater flow on the hill," says Vladimir Kimayev, a member of the group Environmental Watch. "That's why the homes are sliding."

The worst-hit home is a multi-family structure across the street from the Skibas. Over the course of a few months, the five-storey building slid down the hill along Baku Street. Before it was torn down, it destroyed the wooden hut of a neighbour. Skiba says a five-storey building should never have been allowed to be built in Baku Street. The construction company responsible for it, like so many in Sochi, had not obtained any official permits.

When Skiba's grandchildren play in the living room, the ball always rolls into the same corner. The earth movements have literally tilted the house, which now leans at four degrees -- the same slope gradient as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

When Sochi was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in 2007, the Kremlin pledged "zero waste," meaning no environmental pollution. When the news emerged in October that Russia's state railway had been dumping construction waste from a large project to create a highway and railroad link between the Sochi airport and the Olympic venues at what authorities have described as an illegal landfill in the Caucasus, the International Olympic Committee reacted with outrage.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi are a highly complex undertaking. The Kremlin has constructed six stadiums along the Black Sea coast. In addition, ski trails have been erected, as well as ski jumps and dozens of five-star hotels on the hills of the Caucasus. The sporting facilities in the mountains and along the shoreline have been connected with a recently built mountain road. A new train line operates alongside it.

Environmentalists have little power against a prestigious project of this size, and most environmental organizations have already left Sochi. Environmental Watch in the North Caucasus, a regional umbrella group of activists that also includes Vladimir Kimayev, is the exception.

Environmental Watch protested the pollution of rivers through Olympic construction and the destruction of forests, but it had very little success. The group also fought any construction along the shoreline and beaches. Environmental Watch gained the attention of the international media a few years ago when activists stormed the property of several luxurious mansions that had been erected in protected nature conservation areas. One of the homes had been built by the governor of the area. Another residence, a veritable palace with a casino and helicopter landing pad, was reportedly intended for Vladimir Putin himself.

To avoid the long traffic jams in the coastal city, activist Kimayev often travels on his moped. But that proved dangerous for the activist this fall when his brakes failed. Kimayev believes his moped was sabotaged. "They're trying to silence me," he says.

 

-- Der Spiegel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D7

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