By Dmitry Solovyov MOSCOW, July 13 (Reuters) - One of the fiercest heatwaves in its history has engulfed Russia, withering crops, causing the worst drought in 130 years and prompting a top public health official to call for Spanish-style siesta breaks.
Central parts of European Russia, the Volga region, southern Urals and Siberia have all been suffering from the scorching heat, which started in late June and often reaches 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the shade.
Similar conditions have only occurred five times — in 1919, 1920, 1936, 1938 and 1972 — since Russia started recording temperatures 130 years ago, Valery Lukyanov, deputy head of Russia’s main weather forecast centre Roshydromet, told Reuters.
"This is the sixth year in history when late June and early July pose a real threat from the point of view of abnormal temperatures," he said, adding that Moscow could set its own record if temperatures hit 37C.
The capital’s previous high of 36.6 was registered in 1936, Lukyanov said. "God forbid us to set such records," he added.
The Russian Grain Union, an industry lobby, said the country was seeing the worst drought in 130 years. It had already shrivelled grains on 9 million hectares, roughly one fifth of the total area sown to this year’s harvest.
The Kommersant business daily, citing estimates by agribusiness companies, said on Tuesday that combined losses of Russia’s agricultural industry could total $1 billion this year.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday chaired an emergency meeting on how to help farmers cope with the drought.
The heat is a boon for vendors of ice-cream, soft drinks and beer. Restaurants with outside seating are packed and sales of air conditioners and electric fans have skyrocketed.
But it is also a headache for the authorities nationwide as Russians throng to escape from their stuffy cities to nearby lakes and rivers and take the plunge — often when drunk. Local media have reported that scores of people have drowned.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s health protection watchdog, has asked employers to spare their workers and let them take a few hours off after lunch when the heat is severe.
"It is possible to arrange siesta-style breaks…Employers, whenever it is possible of course, ought to think of adjusting work schedules," daily Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted Onishchenko as saying on Tuesday.
There is also a danger of peat bog fires in the forests around Moscow, said Roshydromet’s Lukyanov. In the past, Moscow’s huge residential districts have suffered from suffocating smoke and low visibility during such fires.
In Germany, a forest fire south of Berlin ignited stray munitions at a former Soviet military base, causing small explosions and preventing firefighters from getting close to the flames, a spokesman for the state of Brandenburg said.
Three people were killed after powerful storms swept across northwest Germany on Monday evening after a heatwave.
German farmers face big crop shortfalls from the heat, a spokesman for the German Farmer’s Association said, with the grain harvest set to fall 10 to 20 percent below average this year and wheat prices up 16 percent from early June. More hot weather is predicted at the end of the week.