Armenia Border Villages Suffer for Lack of Water

The villages of Sarigyugh and Berqaber lie right next to a reservoir – but its proximity to a hostile border means they cannot use the water.

Armenia Border Villages Suffer for Lack of Water

The villages of Sarigyugh and Berqaber lie right next to a reservoir – but its proximity to a hostile border means they cannot use the water.

Friday, 20 March, 2009

In the villages of Sarigyugh and Berqaber, in the Tavush region of Armenia, water is a precious commodity. There are only two taps supplying drinking water in each village, located 180 kilometres from the capital, Yerevan.

Water from these taps has to supply not only people’s need to drink but the other needs of local households.

Irrigation has been a constant problem here from Soviet times. But the problem has worsened since the conflict with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh.

Since the 1990s, the Joghas reservoir, which once supplied water to the villages, has been in a conflict zone. Located just inside Armenia, its proximity to the frontier with Azerbaijan means locals who try to approach it come under fire from the other side.

The conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, though frozen since the May 1994 ceasefire, is still felt here, where locals find themselves deprived of access to water they once took for granted.

Lest they forget, the regular sound of shooting from the other side of the border reminds them of their grim reality.

“It is not an easy thing to say, but once, when I was on the toilet, a bullet whistled passed my ear,” Razmik Avetisyan, a resident of Berqaber, recalled.

However, it is not the shots heard day and night, or the ruin of the village hall from bombardment that arouses the concern of Razmik and other villagers from Berqaber.

It is their continuing lack of access to the reservoir. Unable to use the water there, the people of Berqaber, Sarigyugh, Sevqar and Tsaghkavan have been unable to irrigate their fields for 17 years.

The pumping stations supplying water from the Joghas reservoir are out of order, and without them, drinking and irrigation water cannot reach the villages.

In the late 1970s, when Joghas reservoir was built in the north-east of then Soviet Armenia, near the boundary with Azerbaijan, the designers and engineers had no idea that one day it would become impossible to use water from the reservoir, and dangerous even to approach it.

When the reservoir was put into service in 1981, it irrigated more than 5,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Ijevan and Noyemberyan regions of Armenia and the Ghazakh region in Azerbaijan.

The greatest part of these Armenian lands lie on the border with Azerbaijan and are now mined and too dangerous to cultivate. A small section of the land is still cultivated, but is parched and produces only poor harvests.

“The greatest part of the 600 hectares of agricultural land in Berqaber, 516 in all, lie on the other side of the reservoir, though inside the border of our country,” said Suren Khudaverdyan, the head of Berqaber’s village administration.

“But this land comes directly under fire from Azerbaijan and is not cultivated.

“The remaining 84 hectares are on this side of the reservoir but still border with Azerbaijan, so people cannot work there since there are regular shots. It is risky to work only 500 or 600 metres from Azerbaijani positions.

“Household plots can be cultivated but we have only enough water to properly irrigate just 30 per cent of these plots.”

Khudaverdyan knows all about the reservoir and its history. He worked at the pumping stations for 17 years and notes their ruin with regret.

“The aftermath of war for the reservoir has proven tough,” he sighed. “The pumping stations were destroyed, bombarded and robbed. They cannot be reactivated either, because they are on the firing line and only metres from the frontier.

“Electric power is expensive, anyway, so even if these stations were reactivated, the water would be expensive. We have to put up with the fact that the pump stations will not work again.”

According to the State Water Management Committee, a government department, no irrigation or drinking water is supplied from the reservoir at present.

At the same time, the authorities have no large-scale programme to find an alternative water supply for Berqaber, Sarigyugh and Tzaghkavan.

The head of the committee’s Water Economy Infrastructure Administration, Levon Gyumushyan, says the authorities have not set aside any funds for this purpose. As regards international organisations, they tend not to fund projects in risky regions.

The only programme that has been discussed is a plan to extend an existing 34 km-long water pipeline by another 17 km to Sevqar. “This may make irrigation in Sevqar possible,” Gyumushyan said. He added that the pipeline would probably be built in 2010.

But in Berqaber, where state funds were allocated to supply the village with water, the money has been diverted to other purposes, such as restoring roads, improving the gas supply and repairing municipal buildings.

Khudaverdyan, the village head of Berqaber, says these improvements will not necessarily make life much better. “It will not bring any income to the villagers,” he said. “How long can people harvest their crops at night?”

Tsolak Dilbaryan, a resident of Berqaber, says that is precisely what he has to do. “We cultivate our household plots at night, and under gunfire,” he said.

Once, during an exchange of fire, he says a bullet pierced his window, hit the wall and then bounced back and hit a table. “Fortunately, we had not taken our places at the table, as we were waiting for my son,” he recalled.

Norik Azaryan, another villager, has a similar story, “In sunny weather we cannot put cattle to pasture for the fear of shots. Our village is probably the best place in the world but we have neither water nor soil and the enemy is right beside us.”

“We are ploughing and they are firing,” agreed Razmik Avetisyan, another villager in Berqaber. “We want to reap, but we can’t because they are shooting, so we no longer try to cultivate our plots.”

Tired of their grim existential struggle, people are leaving the border villages. Thirty of the 125 families have left Berqaber. Of the remaining families, most of their young have gone.

The local classroom is emptier than it was. “There used to be 161 pupils in the school in the 1990s whereas now there are only 52,” Khudverdyan said.

In nearby Sarigyugh, although they have a 5 km-long border with Azerbaijan, people have not left in the same numbers.

They can still cultivate their plots as long as Azerbaijani bullets do not reach them, though without irrigation their harvest is not always abundant.

The village head in Sarigyugh, Komitas Ellaryan, says the whole community suffers from the lack of access to water.

“We sow crops that we can harvest without irrigation, using only rainwater,” he explained. “If we had water, the harvest would be ten times richer and people would live better.”

In spring in the past two years, Ellaryan and couple of volunteers managed to activate one of the pumping stations at Joghas, supplying some domestic water to Sarigyugh.

But this spring they don’t expect to repeat the experiment. “This year we are afraid to activate it because every time we go there they open fire,” he said.

“We were going there, me, my assistant, a few villagers and friends, but on the other side they were looking through their binoculars and firing every time they noticed people coming.

“Now we have only two taps supplying drinking water in the village and people queue for water.”

In Sarigyugh, locals say they have got used to this lack of water and keep a keen eye out for rain.

“People here have a bath when it rains; it’s distilled water, after all,” joked Garnik Pashinyan, head of the village school.

“We wait for the rain to wash clothes and have a bath,” said Arsen Manucharyan, a resident.

“We try to cultivate our plots but the tomatoes we grow are too small, sweet but small. So, despite living in a village, we have to buy tomatoes and many other things.”

Manucharyan says that 90 per cent of the people in the village have taken out credits from banks and now are in debt. “They took credits but had no results,” he said.

“They pinned their hopes on growing a little wheat which failed, because God promised rain but did not bring it. The wheat only grew about 10 centimetres tall.”

For some families, living near the reservoir, fishing is the only way to make a living. But it is a risky profession.

Hovik Papyan, who fishes with a friend in the reservoir at night, says there is no other alternative.

“Risking our lives, we do it to take care of our families though often we have enough only for eating and very rarely for sale,” he said.

“My situation is not so poor but my friend Alik is in a worse state. He has three children at school and a sick mother. Every time we fish, there are shots. Nevertheless, we have to fish to feed our children.

“Let the authorities give us jobs and we will work.”

The defence ministry does not give out specific statistics concerning the number of victims of the standoff over the reservoir. But it admits that civilians have been killed in recent years.

Meanwhile, the precarious lives of the villagers are set to get worse as a result of the global economic crisis.

Ellaryan, the village head of Sarigyugh, says 100 of the 350 families there live on remittances sent by Armenians working in Russia – men whose jobs are now in jeopardy as Russia’s economy contracts.

The head of Berqaber, Khudaverdyan, foresees calamity, “People who were to leave the country to earn a living now do not know what to do. It is a real disaster.”

Sara Khojoyan is correspondent of Armenianow Online. Armen Chatinyan is a journalist at Capital Daily, in Yerevan. Karen Harutiunyan , editor-in-chief of Capital Daily, contributed into this article.

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