So far, Russia’s $50 billion Winter Olympic development has failed to deliver any help to rural areas.
With only six weeks until the opening ceremony of the most expensive Winter Olympics in history, the International Olympic Committee has been severely criticized by Human Rights Watch for leaving villages without water for five years.
The Russian Olympic bid was intended to bring prosperity to the region, but the $50 billion construction of the Winter Olympics facilities has had a negative effect on people’s livelihoods and property. The International Olympic Committee has been plagued with reports that construction workers have not been paid for months and that the construction has left villages with no water since construction started in 2008.
“The Russian government is building the most expensive Olympics in history, but the authorities cut Akhshtyr’s villagers off from basic services and have done woefully little to restore them,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Residents of the small village of Akhshtyr are angry over the slow destruction their way of life and are calling on authorities to solve the problems created by the Olympic construction in Sochi.
“The president said that no one would suffer because of construction. And what’s happened is that the whole village has suffered,” said Akhshtyr resident Alexander Koropov.
The village of Akhshtyr is located in a remote area in the Caucasus Mountains between the Olympic venues on Sochi’s Black Sea coast and the alpine Olympic venues in the resort of Krasnaya Polyana. The Olympic committee decided to build a 48-kilometer railway and road along the Mzymta River to link the two Olympic venues. Unfortunately, this new road has cut the village off, and left villagers stranded with no water and no roads to enter or exit the village.
Living without water
In 2008, Russian authorities started work on the Olympic venue in Sochi. The gargantuan development, which includes new stadiums, 40 new or refurbished hotels, new railways and roads, has been criticized for cutting corners in construction.
One such measure is the dumping of construction waste in Akhshtyr. Five years ago, the Olympic authorities decided to pave a dirt road running through the village so that they could access the two quarries surrounding the village. In the process of laying the paving stones, it destroyed the only water pipe leading to the village’s drinking well.
But that’s not all. Dump trucks carrying heavy loads of construction waste and dust pass through the rural village at all times of the day and night, dumping waste in the quarries. Villagers were not consulted about this. Now this waste has seeped into the natural wells and has contaminated the only natural source of drinking water. Today, the village survives on bottled water delivered by Russian authorities once a week. Residents use it for drinking, cooking, and washing. But many say that it’s not enough.
In response to the villager’s complaints, Russian authorities attempted to install a water pump on the edge of the village in 2010, but it didn’t work. According to residents, the pump worked only one day — the day local officials came to the village for a public event to celebrate the pump’s installation.
The authorities later stated in letters to Akhshtyr residents that the pump had been shut off because it did not meet “sanitary-protection norms,” or firefighting requirements and did not pass state inspection.
Over the years, residents have submitted multiple written complaints about the water supply and other concerns to various federal, regional, and local government agencies. But with Olympics beginning in February, residents are worried that nothing will be done and fear that the delivery of water will also disappear.
The authorities have promised repeatedly to rectify the problem. Sochi Mayor Anatolii Pakhomov is the latest to offer help in restoring water to the village. But this issue seems low on the list of priorities for Russian officials as they prepare for the games.
“The residents of Akhshtyr have suffered for over five years without a reliable water supply, despite repeatedly asking the authorities for help,” Buchanan said. “The government should finally deliver on its commitments. Residents are understandably tired of the years of empty promises.”
The cost of construction
Environmental activists have also criticized the IOC for failing to preserve the sensitive habitat of the Caucasus Mountains and forest areas from construction waste. Heavy truck traffic has created large amounts of dust and has adversely affected villagers’ health, property, livestock, and agriculture.
In Akhshtyr, trucks carry dust and waste through the village five times a day, leaving five inches of thick dust covering the road and residents’ houses, yards and gardens.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the dust forced them to lose their fruit crops that normally would be a key source of income.
Although local environmental activists and scientists have criticized dumping waste in quarries that are located near sensitive habitats, it has not stopped the construction companies.
The construction of Olympic venues has also left some workers disillusioned by the constant hiring and firing and unreliable salary payments.
Olga Kalmykova, 23, is one of many workers who have complained about not being paid. Working at the Black Sea resort at the peak of the construction frenzy, the technical specialist found a job at a contractor’s office. After months of work her pay was suddenly stopped along with 20 construction workers from the same site.
About 1,000 workers in Sochi Olympic sites have complained this year about not receiving their pay, according to Semyon Simonov, head of a local workers rights clinic.
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 66 migrant laborers on Olympic sites and found some employers failed to pay full wages, or in some cases, any wages at all.
Buchanan says the problem dates back to the early days of construction in 2008. The possible reasons include basic wage theft at the level of the employer, contractual disputes between companies, and even improper dealings at higher levels.
“The bottom line is that non-payment and delayed payment is a pervasive problem across Sochi … and the authorities have failed to stop these practices,” she said.
Russia’s $50 billion Winter Olympic development promised economic growth for all Russians, but so far it has failed to deliver any help to rural areas.