Geography, climate and population
With a total area of 17.1 million km², the Russian Federation is by far the largest country in the world. The area of the second largest country in the world, Canada, is less than 60 percent of the area of the Russian Federation. The country covers the eastern part of Europe and the northern part of Asia. It has access to the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Pacific Ocean in the east, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the southwest, and the Baltic Sea in the northwest. It borders 14 countries: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and, with the province (oblast) of Kaliningrad, Poland and Lithuania.
The Soviet Union came to an end in late 1991 and the Russian Federation emerged as one of the 15 newly independent former Soviet republics. Administratively, the Russian Federation is divided into 46 provinces (oblasts), 21 republics, 4 autonomous okrugs, 9 krays, 2 federal cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) and 1 autonomous oblast. The capital is Moscow.
The Russian Federation is formed of three vast, low plains: the east European plain and the west Siberian plain, divided by the Ural mountains, and the Caspian plain in the southwest. In the northern part of these plains young glacial formations and swamps exist, especially in the west Siberian plain. South of the plains is a belt of loess with fertile black soils. In the European part poor semi-desert and desert soils occur south of the loess belt. In central and southern Siberia and in the far east, mountains of medium height predominate, with a peak of 4 506 m above sea level (Belukha in Altay). The highest peak in the country with 5 642 m above sea level is Mount Elbrus situated in the Caucasus near the border with Georgia.
The agricultural area, which is the sum of arable land, permanent crops and permanent meadows and pasture, is estimated at 217 million ha, which is 13 percent of the total area of the country. In 2013, the total physical cultivated area was estimated at 123.8 million ha, of which 99 percent (122.2 million ha) consisted of temporary crops and 1 percent (1.6 million ha) of permanent crops (Table 1).
Seven climatic zones can be distinguished within the Russian Federation. Their main features are presented in Table 2. In large regions, temperature is a major constraint on cropping.
Average annual precipitation ranges from less than 200 mm at the mouth of the Volga river in the southwest, in the central part of the far east (Yakutsk), and on the Arctic Ocean coast east of the mouth of the Lena river, up to 1 000 mm in the mountains of the far east. It ranges from 400 to 500 mm in most areas of the European part and western Siberia, and from 300 to 400 mm in central and eastern Siberia. The average annual precipitation for the country as a whole is 460 mm.
In 2015, the total population was about 143 million, of which around 27 percent was rural (Table 1). Average population density in the country is 8 inhabitants/km². It varies from around 60 inhabitants/km² in the central region, where the capital Moscow and the Kaliningrad oblast are located, to 2 inhabitants/km² in eastern Siberia and 1 inhabitant/km² in the far east. The average annual population growth rate in the 2005-2015 period has been estimated at -0.01 percent. The largest city is Moscow with 12 million inhabitants, followed by Saint Petersburg with 5 million inhabitants and 13 cities of 1-2 million inhabitants (FSSS, 2015).
In 2014, the Human Development Index (HDI) ranks the Russian Federation 50 among 188 countries, while the Gender Inequality Index (GII) ranks it 54 among 155 countries, for which information was available. Life expectancy is 71 years and the under-five mortality rate is 10 per 1000 births, both progressing from 64 years and 26 per 1000 in the 1990s. With no significant distinction between boys and girls, around 96 percent of the children in 2013 are enrolled in primary education (WB, 2015). Adult literacy is 99.7 percent in 2012 (UNDP, 2015). In 2015, 97 percent of the total population had access to improved water sources (99 and 91 percent in urban and rural areas respectively) and 72 percent of the total population had access to improved sanitation (77 and 59 percent in urban and rural areas respectively) (JMP, 2015).
Economy, agriculture and food security
In 2014, the gross domestic product (GDP) was US$ 1 860 000 million. In 2013, agriculture accounted for 4 percent of GDP, while in 1993 it accounted for 8 percent.
The Russian Federation has moved from a centrally planned economy towards a more market-based economy since the end of the Soviet Union. Economic reforms in the 1990s privatized most industry, with notable exceptions in the energy and defense-related sectors. However, the protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference. Russia is one of the world's leading producers of oil and natural gas, and is also a top exporter of metals such as steel and primary aluminum (CIA, 2015).
The agricultural production potential is distributed extremely unevenly within the country. It is limited mainly to the south of the European part and small areas on the southern fringes of Siberia as well as areas in the far east region. This distribution reflects the zonal diversification of the natural environment, from ice deserts in the north, through tundra, coniferous woods (taiga), mixed woods, to the fragments of steppes and semi-deserts in the south.
During the Soviet period, what was then Russia was a large grain importer. Since 2000 the Russian Federation has become a major grain exporter, but despite the large grain exports, the country overall is a much larger agricultural importer than exporter. The country has a large negative trade balance in agriculture and food because it exports bulks crops, such as grain and sunflower seed, while it imports high value products, like meat, fruits, vegetables, and processed foods (Liefert, 2015).
Surface water and groundwater resources
Most of the freshwater resources of the Russian Federation are contained in the permafrost which covers the north of the European part and western Siberia, all central and eastern Siberia and almost all the far east region. These resources, as well as the glaciers in the Arctic islands, in the Ural mountains and in the mountains of southern Siberia, are of no practical use.
It is only possible to use the resources of rivers, lakes and groundwater. There are 120 000 rivers with a length of more than 10 km each. Their total length within the country equals 2.3 million km, their total discharge to the sea is estimated at almost 4 223.8 km³/year and to other countries at 25.4 km³/year. About 71 percent of the total area of the country drains towards the north into the Arctic Ocean, 14 percent towards the east into the Pacific Ocean and 10 percent towards the south into the Caspian Sea. The remaining 5 percent drains towards the southwest into the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and towards the west into the Baltic Sea.
Of the total annual RSWR, estimated at 4 249.2 km³, 213.5 km³ come from neighbouring countries (Table 3). The remaining 4 035.7 km³ are generated inside the country of which 75.2 percent in the Arctic Ocean basin group, 14.9 percent in the Pacific Ocean basin group, 6.3 percent in the Caspian Sea basin group and 3.6 percent in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea basin group.
The rivers of the Russian Federation freeze for from one month in the southwest between the Caspian and the Black Sea, up to 8 months and longer in the northern part of Siberia and the far east region.
The internal renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 788 km³/year. This figure, however, does not include resources in the form of inland ice, glaciers and pergelisol (permafrost). For the regions of western and eastern Siberia alone, the quantity of ice of the arctic islands is estimated at 5 000 km³ and that of the mountain glaciers at 170 km³. The resources in the form of pergelisol are even larger. The overlap between surface water and groundwater resources has been estimated at 512 km³/year, which brings the total renewable water resources to 4 525 km³ (4 249+788-512) (Table 4).
Water resources in the Russian Federation are very unevenly distributed in relation to the population. The European part, where 80 percent of the country’s population and industry is concentrated, has just about 10 percent of total renewable water resources. The huge distances between the Siberian and European basins make it practically impossible to transfer water from Siberia to Europe. Transfer projects were considered in the past but encountered several problems, including environmental ones.
In 2011, produced municipal wastewater was estimated at 12 320 million m³.
Lakes and dams
There are about two million fresh- and saltwater lakes in the Russian Federation. The largest saltwater lake is the Caspian Sea, surrounded by the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan. The largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal, located entirely within the Russian Federation in the southeast of Siberia. With an area of 32 000 km², a mean depth of about 730 m and a maximum depth of 1 637 m it is the world’s largest and deepest lake. It contains around 23 000 km³ of water. The largest river flowing into Lake Baikal is the Selenge river, which annual flow of 58.75 km³ is about half of the total supply of all rivers flowing into the lake. The only river flowing out of Baikal lake is the Angara river, its mean annual runoff being about 60 km³.
Other important lakes in the country are Lake Ladoga with a capacity of 911 km³, Lake Onega with 292 km³ and Lake Khanka with 18.3 km³ (Circle of Blue, 2009; FSSS, 2015).
Dams have been constructed on most large rivers in the country, mainly for hydropower, but also for irrigation and water supply. There are more than 2 220 water reservoirs and ponds in use with the volume of each exceeding 1 million m³. All of them were constructed between 1926 and 1991. About 36 reservoirs exceed a capacity of 1 km³. Almost all of these dams contain hydroelectric power stations with a total capacity of about 50 624 MW (IHA, 2016).
The total capacity of reservoirs and ponds is 801 544 million m³. The largest reservoir in the country is the Bratsk reservoir in the Angara river with a total capacity of 169 000 million m³, followed by the Krasnoyarsk reservoir in the Yenisey river (73 300 million m³), the Zeya reservoir in the Zeya river (68 400 million m³), the Ust-Ilim reservoir in the Angara river (59 300 million m³) and the Kuibyshev reservoir in the Volga river (58 000 million m³).
International water issues
Some agreements have been signed for the cooperation in the field of protection and use of transboundary rivers between the Russian Federation and bordering countries (ECE, 2009):
In 1982, the water withdrawal was 97.8 km³, while in 1994 it had dropped to 77.1 km³. This reduction in water consumption, which concerns industrial and irrigation water withdrawal, has been related to the difficult economic situation in the Russian Federation, which worsened in 1990. In 2001, total water withdrawal was estimated at 66 200 million m³ of which 39 600 million m³ (60 percent) for industry – including 30 800 million m³ for cooling of thermoelectric plants –, 13 200 million m³ (20 percent) for agriculture and 13 400 million m³ (20 percent) for municipalities (Table 5 and Figure 1). In 2013, total water withdrawal was estimated at 61 000 million m³ (FSSS, 2015).
About 70 percent of the population of the Russian Federation obtains drinking water from surface water sources. In rural areas, more than one-third of the population uses drinking water from non-centralized sources (Dudarev et al, 2013).
Permafrost which occupies about 65 percent of the country, including the whole Arctic and the bulk of Siberia and Far East, is the main cause of infrequent use of groundwater sources in the northern part of the country. In small settlements, in general, water pipes supply untreated and non-disinfected drinking water directly from surface water sources. A majority of these water supply systems in rural areas are used only in summer. In winter, water is mostly delivered from surrounding reservoirs due to the insufficient flow rates of open water sources. Some communities use constant water preheating during cold seasons. In severe cold climate zones, where wells are unavailable or impossible to construct, water will typically be delivered by trucks carrying water tanks in summer and sawn ice blocks in winter (Dudarev et al, 2013).
In 2011, the quantity of produced wastewater was estimated at about 12 320 million m³.
Irrigation and drainage
Larger scale irrigation and drainage works started at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The main goal of the water works was not the development of agriculture, but to use the water to generate power for the mines and steelworks of the southern Urals, and to drain areas near the then capital, Saint Petersburg. However, the damming up of water in the neighbourhood of the Urals also enabled the development of irrigation, while the drainage works turned some of the swamps into cultivable land. During the nineteenth century, irrigation developed slowly, mainly outside the territory of today's Russian Federation. In 1894, the first government land improvement institution was established, called the Department of Land Improvement, and water legislation was introduced in 1902. In 1916, about 214 000 ha of irrigated land and 890 000 ha of drained land were used for agriculture within the territory of the present Russian Federation. A sudden acceleration in drainage and irrigation work took place between 1920 and 1931, in connection with the great electrification programme (GOELRO). Initially, electrification always had priority over irrigation and drainage. Only in the 1950s, during the construction of the Volga cascade reservoirs, did irrigation become as important as hydroelectricity in water development design. In 1967, the irrigated area was 1.62 million ha, which was eight times the irrigated area of 1916, while the drained area of 1.64 million ha was almost twice that of 1916. By the end of the 1980s, every year, up to 200 000 ha of newly irrigated areas and 160 000 ha of newly drained areas were given for agricultural use. However, the scale of the negative effects resulting from the drying up of swamps and from the salinization of irrigated areas was increasing. The rhythm of development of irrigation and drainage work slowed down at the beginning of the 1990s.
Evolution of irrigation development
Based on climate and soil conditions, it is estimated that 15-20 percent of the cultivable area needs irrigation in the moderately warm dry semi-desert zone, 5-8 percent in the moderately warm semi-dry steppe zone, 2-5 percent in the moderately warm semi-dry forested steppe zone, and 1-2 percent in the moderately warm forest zone. Figures for irrigation potential are estimated at almost 29 million ha under permanent irrigation. Other sources give a potential of more than 74 million ha of complementary irrigation.
In 1990, irrigation covered 6.12 million ha. In 1994, however, it had fallen to 5.16 million ha. One reason for the decrease was the economic recession. The sprinkler systems (accounting for almost 96 percent of the area equipped for irrigation in 1990) were overused, and there was no maintenance and operation system. This progressively resulted in the complete destruction and subsequent abandonment of the schemes. The largest irrigation development took place in the north Caucasian and Volga regions. Irrigation was undertaken mainly on huge sovkhoz and, to a smaller extent, on kolkhoz.
Most of the land under irrigation is commanded by reservoirs, and open canals convey the water to the irrigation schemes. The largest canals are: Saratovski, Donski, Magistral, Great Stavropolski, Tersko-Kumski and Kumo-Manycki. Within the schemes, underground pipes convey the water to the emitters (rain guns). In 1990, sprinkler irrigation was the most widely used technique (96 percent of the area), surface irrigation being used on the remainder.
In 2006, total area equipped for irrigation was estimated at 2 375 000 ha, of which 80 percent were irrigated by surface water and 20 percent by groundwater (Table 6 and Figure 2). About 938 900 ha, or 40 percent of the total area equipped for irrigation, was actually irrigated.
Role of irrigation in agricultural production, economy and society
In 2006, the total harvested irrigated cropped area was 938 900 ha, of which 35 percent were temporary fodder, 19 percent permanent meadows and pastures, 9 percent potatoes, 7 percent wheat, 7 percent fruit trees, 6 percent vegetables, 4 percent rice, 7 percent other cereals, 3 percent pulses and 3 percent sugar beet (Table 6 and Figure 3).
Yields of irrigated crops are higher than those of rainfed crops. Irrigated maize yields are about 2.7 t/ha compared with 1.7 t/ha for rainfed maize. For barley, the respective figures are 2.25 and 1.65 t/ha.
Status and evolution of drainage systems
In 1990, the drained area was 7.4 million ha, of which almost 44 percent was equipped with subsurface drainage systems and 56 percent with surface drainage systems. In 1990, only 21 percent of the irrigated land was equipped with a drainage system.
In 1994 the drained area dropped to about 5 million ha. This fall was due either to the breakdown of the infrastructure because of overexploitation without proper maintenance, or to the theft of pipes or the destruction of drains. In 1994, crops were grown on 2.45 million ha of drained land, the major crops being fodder crops followed by cereals. Yields of drained crops are somewhat lower than those of rainfed crops. This might be explained by the fact that drained land is already of marginal quality. Soils are very poor with a low pH and are not really suitable for cultivation. Another reason for the low yields might be the advanced state of degradation of large parts of the drained land.
In 1994, about 25.6 million ha were estimated to be excessively humid and marshy areas needing drainage. Over 15 million ha were estimated to be salinized and 24.3 million ha to have saline soils.
Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture
The main institutions related to water resources management are:
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) is responsible for public policy making and regulation in the field of the study, use and conservation of natural resources, including the subsoil, water bodies, forests, fauna, hydrometeorology, wastewater, environmental monitoring and pollution control. The MNRE coordinates and supervises the following institutions (MNRE, 2016):
The Russian Water Association (RWA) was established by the Prime Minister in 2009. Its primary goal is to support the water industry players' joint efforts aimed at reforming and modernization to industry to improve the performance of the Russian water enterprises, to liaise with the international water community, and to represent the country’s water-related interests abroad (RWA, 2016).
The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), is responsible for drafting and implementing government policy and legal regulation in the agriculture and related industries, including livestock farming (including breeding of domesticated fish species), veterinary services, crop production, phytosanitary control, soil improvement and fertility, the food and food processing industry, and the sustainable development of rural areas (MoA, 2016).
In 2010, the Government approved the Clean Water Federal Target Programme through 2017, the main result of which shall be the access to the required amount of clean potable water for the entire community of the country. According to experts, this may improve the life expectancy in the country by 5-7 years. Its main objectives are the replacement of obsolete equipment, improvement of water quality and, generally, building a new efficient water industry. The programme concerns everyone, including the state, the business, and the community. Regions play the main role in implementation of the programme and almost all regions have submitted their water projects. A number of regions, such as the Republic of Bashkortostan, and Volgograd, Novgorod, Orenburg, Penza, and Yaroslavl regions have already started the implementation of the water projects on their own through attracting private investors and using the public-private partnership approach (Dudarev et al, 2013; Likhacheva, 2011; RWA, 2016).
The Russian Water Association has initiated the Water 2050 Foresight Project to conduct special studies to review the status of water resources in the Russian Federation and all over the world and to develop possible water challenge scenarios (RWA, 2016).
Federal and regional authorities will spend only 5 percent of the cost of the Clean Water Federal Target Programme. Thus, for the first time in modern history, the Russian Federation faces large-scale modernization of infrastructure mostly with private financing (Likhacheva, 2011).
Water fees were formally introduced in 1982. The recovery of operation and maintenance costs by revenues from water bills has improved over the last two decades. However, a substantial proportion of users enjoys water without water-use permit or contract and hence does not pay for the water they use.
Policies and legislation
The country still has no federal law on drinking water and drinking water supply. Such a law was elaborated and submitted for consideration 14 years ago but it was rejected by the upper chamber of Russian Parliament mainly due to disagreements with regard to the regulations governing the mechanism for the privatization of drinking water supply systems. In 2013, the Federal Law “On water supply and water outlet” was entered into force, but it regulates only economic and financial issues (Dudarev et al, 2013).
Environment and health
The Russian Federation has a long history of serious environmental accidents, especially in the fuel and chemical industries.
The largest rivers in the country – Volga, Don, Kuban, Amur, Northern (Svernaya) Dvina, Pechora, Ural, Ob and Yenisey – are considered polluted. Some of their major tributaries – Kama, Donets, Tom, Irtysh, Tobol and Miass – are classified as ‘highly polluted’, while several water bodies are considered ‘extremely polluted’ (OECD, 2013).
The poor state of water supply systems owned by the state and the poor quality of drinking water is publicly admitted, particularly regarding the regions of the Russian Arctic, Siberia and Far East (Dudarev et al, 2013). About 11 million residents of the Russian Federation use water, which is unsuitable for drinking. One third of the population uses poor quality water daily (RWA, 2016).
In rural areas, more than one-third of the population uses drinking water from non-centralized sources. The quality of this water is low due to weak protection of aquifers from pollution from surface areas, the lack of sanitary protection zones, and the delayed repair, cleaning and disinfecting of wells and interception ditches (Dudarev et al, 2013).
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is likely to affect both the quantity and quality of water in the Russian Federation. On the whole, renewable water resources may increase in the country by 8–10 percent in the next 30 years, though their distribution will become more even. This change will bring certain positive impacts—including for hydroelectric generation. However, managing the increased flows will pose other problems, especially when these increased flows coincide with extreme weather events such as downpours, or springtime ice-clogged floods. In addition, increasing water shortages are predicted for southern parts of European Russia. Moreover, a number of densely populated regions that are already subject to water shortages are expected to face even more pronounced difficulties in decades to come (Climate Adaptation, 2015; OECD, 2013).
Prospects for agricultural water management
In several water-scarce regions, water is becoming a constraint for further economic development. The poor condition of water infrastructure, which derives from under-funded maintenance and repair and lack of rehabilitation, can contribute to local shortages and poor water-related services. In 2020s-2030s, lack of water may create significant challenges for the growth and development of the main industrial and urban centers.
The state water management requires a shift in water resource management paradigm from the water resource distribution concept to the concept of managing a scarcer and deteriorating resource.
Exploitation of groundwater could help address local water shortages, but the level of knowledge and the extent of development of fresh groundwater resources are still low, except for five regions.
According to experts, due to its vast territories and moderate climate, the country can potentially become one of the major grain producers in the world. To achieve this, it is necessary that Russian agriculture switches to new water supply systems with the use of modern international technologies (OECD, 2013; RWA, 2016).
Main sources of information
CIA. 2015. The World fact book: Russia. Central Intelligence Agency.
Circle of Blue. 2009. Water views. Russia. Compared to other environmental issues, Russians consider water pollution to be the most serious.
Climate Adaptation. 2015. Freshwater resources Russia.
Dudarev, A.A., Dushkina, E.V., Sladkova, Y.N., Alloyarov, P.R., Chupakhin, V.S., Dorofeyev, V.M., Kolesnikova, T.A., Fridman, K.B, Evengard, B. and Nilsson, L.M. 2013. Food and water security issues in Russia II: Water security in general population of Russian Arctic, Siberia and Far East, 2000–2011.
ECE. 2009. Capacity for water cooperation in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. Economic Commission for Europe.
FSSS. 2015. Website of FSSS. Russia in figures 2015. Federal State Statistics Service.
IHA. 2016. Hydropower status report 2016. International Hydropower Association.
JMP. 2015. Progress on drinking water and sanitation – 2015 Update and MDG Assessment. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.
Khublaryan, M.G. Water resources for sustainable development, with particular reference to Russia.
Liefert, W. M., and Liefert, O. 2015. Russia's economic crisis and its agricultural and food economy. Choices. Quarter 1.
Likhacheva, A. 2011. Water industry in Russia: challenges and political priorities. Fourth annual conference on competition and regulation in network industries, Brussels, Belgium.
MNRE. 2016. Website of the MNRE. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
MoA. 2016. Website of the MoA. The Ministry of Agriculture.
OECD. 2013. Economic instruments for water resources management in the Russian Federation. Organisation for Economic Coopearation and Development.
RWA. 2016. Website of the RWA. Russian Water Association.
UNDP. 2015. Human Development Reports: Data. United Nations Development Programme. New York.
UNEP. Planning and management of lakes and reservoirs: An integrated approach to eutrophication. Management of water reservoirs: The Russian experience. United Nations Environment Programme
World Bank. 2015. World Development Indicators. World DataBank. World Bank. Washington.