Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day 4- Waterways

Ship 'Volga-Don 101' enters the first lock of the canal.

As we emerged onto the bridge we saw it. The Volga-Don Shipping Canal. What struck me first was how picturesque it was. Smart grass banks ran down to the lock. Above it, on a hill up stone steps was the manager’s office. It was like a minor noble’s house. We first entered the plotting room, and there the picturesque gave way to planning.

It was built in the 1950’s, but apart from the Russian it looked much like I would expect such a facility anywhere in Europe. Charts showed which ships were entering and leaving locks right across the 100km channel linking the Volga and Don rivers. A cross section also showed the lock system, nine locks lifting ships up 88metres from the Volga and another four lowering them 44 metres down to the Don on the other side. Three powerful pumping stations bring water up from the Don to maintain the water level. Phones kept ringing for the ‘dispatchers’. They would give permission for ships to enter and leave locks and for the water levels to be changed.

When we went down to the lock itself though, the communist engineering pride couldn’t be hidden among the trees on the banks. The arch above the lock entrance was topped an each side by a metal statue of a collection of Soviet banners. The project was finished in 1952, the year before Stalin died. It was a typically Stalin like project. The first plans to join the two rivers date back to the Turks who owned most of the region in 1569. Many others tried, most notably Peter the Great, but none of them had access to the vast number of slave labourers created by the Gulag prison camp system. Stalin did, and by the year of its completion there were 100,000 of them toiling and dying to finish it. As with projects across the Soviet Union, it’s a monument to engineering ambition, built on the misery of a totalitarian system using slave labour.

The controls may be modernised, but the lock systems are the same as they
were in the fifties.

The lock doors opened with a call from the dispatcher. In floated the ship slowly. Then up it went when the pumps were switched on and out the other end. The system is in the process of going digital so we saw a mixture of fifties style working and modern computer technology. It was an impressive sight. They reckon the canal has shifted numbers approaching half a million vessels since it was built and 12 million tonnes of cargo passes through every year.

However the canal isn’t without its problems, as its manager Alkensandr Naumov, told us. “The water level gets harder to support, with less and less melt water each year because of less snow.” There have also been problems caused by the Volga hydroelectric station upstream, he adds, “The hydroelectric plant sometimes starves us of water so that we can only let in smaller ships, or half full ones.”

Alkensandr Naumov says they have problems these days with one of the things
you need most in a canal, water.

If you can put aside the cost, this is at least an engineering achievement the Soviets and now the Russians can be proud of. All they need now is the water to run it.

1 comment:

  1. The manager's name is def Alexandr. And your blog is something that's pretty interesting to read, mate, I do it and am waiting for more!