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Armenia: Can Lake Sevan Rise to the Challenge?

Ecologists fear a rare environmental triumph is in danger of going wrong.
By Arevhat Grigorian

Trees and summerhouses disappear from view as lake waters rise. Photos by Ruben Mangasaryan/patkerphoto.

Buildings and beaches around Lake Sevan are rapidly disappearing under water as efforts by scientists and environmentalists to reverse the decline of this huge freshwater reservoir pay off more quickly than expected.

Despite the fact the encroaching waters could soon be lapping at their windows, many who live and work around the Armenian lake are delighted to see it returning to former levels.

“I'd like to see the water rise as much as possible, and if necessary, we'll just move the building to another place," said Norik Simonian, a bookkeeper at a motel located on the lake.

Azat, who rents part of the beach, where he has set up cafes and other visitor attractions, agreed, "What would happen if the water level did not rise, and the lake turned into a swamp? There'd be no business then anyway."

Lake Sevan, one of the highest altitude lakes in the world, began dwindling in the 1930s under a ruthless plan to use its waters for irrigation and hydroelectricity. A paradise of beach resorts and holiday villas sprang up along the lake's edge.

But as the water levels began to fall, changes in temperature and oxygen supply depleted fish reserves. In particular, several varieties of trout vanished and other species are on the verge of extinction. Birds also abandoned the area as the nests they had once built close to the water's edge were left stranded far from the newly exposed shoreline. The lake itself was used as a waste dump.

Faced with this ecological disaster, environmentalists have been campaigning for years to get the government to take action to restore the water to its former levels.

The government stopped using Sevan for energy in 1999 and two years later parliament passed a law decreeing the water should be raised to 1,903 metres above sea level, the height at which experts say it will be possible to regulate the temperature and oxygen levels and restore the ecological balance.

“Beginning in the 1930s we ‘borrowed’ 26 billion cubic metres of water from Lake Sevan in order to satisfy our energy and food production needs,” said Vladimir Movsisian, vice-president of the Expert Commission on Lake Sevan and a member of the National Council of Water. “We should now return at least eight billion to the lake so that we can take water from it in the future if the needs arises.”

Water is now flowing in through tunnels from the Arpa and Vorotan rivers, and 410 hectares of land have already disappeared.

By the time the lake hits its target level, ten times that amount will be under water - 4,427 hectares, of which 3,130 are forest and the rest resorts, private mansions, arable land and 30 kilometres of highways.

But this rare Armenian environmental triumph is in danger of going wrong.

Scientists had predicted it would take 30 years to refill the lake, but now forecast that could happen in just 15, as water pours in faster than expected, helped by unexpectedly high levels of precipitation.

Though they don’t know if the water will continue to rise at this rate, it seems likely that money will have to be found sooner than expected to carry out crucial preparatory work along the shoreline.

This could be a problem as the government has only a fraction of the estimated 30 million US dollars needed to remove trees, shrubs and buildings from areas that will eventually be flooded.

So far, just 150,000 dollars have been allocated to clear an area of 100 hectares already under water, with work scheduled to begin in November. Early estimates suggest another 200,000 dollars will be needed next year.

Environmental campaigners are worried that if money isn’t found to sweep up the rest of the rapidly disappearing land, the flooded forests will begin to rot and poison the lake.

"We've seen this since Soviet times when water reservoirs were filled without a prior clean-up,” said Karine Danielian, chairperson of the non-government organisation For Sustainable Human Development.

“The water became toxic and the reservoirs became useless for drinking water. It's those who are responsible for clearing the land, but who don't want to take responsibility for it, who say the damage will be minimal."

Movsisian is also concerned.

"The rotting of the forest mass is not a danger to the lake now. But if no measures are taken in the future and 3,700 hectares of forest go under water, then it will become a problem," he told IWPR.

Boris Gabrielian, deputy director of the Institute of Hydro-Ecology and Ichthyology at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, agrees that additional organic matter could harm the lake and cause swamps to form. However, he points out, "the raised water level would improve the quality of the water, and the benefit from this will be greater than any damage caused by the forests going under water".

Artashes Ziroian, head of the governmental Agency for the Preservation of Biological Resources, appeared relaxed about the situation in an interview with IWPR, suggesting there is no need to begin clearing trees immediately.

"Next year the water level might not go up by so much, and the forests will have been cut prematurely," said Ziroian.

Armenia’s environment minister, Vardan Aivazian, is also wary of ecological doommongers, suggesting the flooded shoreline poses no current threat.

Environmentalists, however, are suspicious of Aivazian who raised concerns in June when he said that new “scientific substantiation of the environmental impact of the increase of water in Lake Sevan should be given”. Some speculated this meant the government wanted to stop the water rising as it couldn’t afford to clear the shore.

“To demand new scientific research today for Lake Sevan is like treachery for the simple reason that the problem has been painstakingly studied over a period of many years by many specialists in all the relevant scientific establishments, not only in Armenia but in the Soviet Union before that,” said Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of the Union of Greens of Armenia. “Huge amounts of government money were spent on this and they all reached the same conclusion - that the water levels of Lake Sevan must be raised."

The former chairman of the environmental committee of the National Assembly of Armenia, now permanent member of the European Commission for the Fight Against Desertification, Gagik Tadevosian, told IWPR, "The survival of Armenia depends on Sevan. Where there is Sevan, there is Armenia."

Back on the lakeshore, Flamingo Beach has lost half its territory in two years. Parts of the aquatic park are now under water though manager Artur Avetisian dismantled all metal structures as the water rose.

He is now cautious about re-erecting them elsewhere as he has no idea how fast, or how far, the water is going to rise.

Vardan Aivazian told IWPR that the Armenian government will compensate all those who own property which may be flooded, though he has received no requests so far. He added that the silence could be because some of the buildings were put up illegally.

"The increase in the water level of Sevan is more valuable than a few peoples' houses," said Aivazian. To bring his message home, he quoted one of Armenia's richest businessmen, Gagik Tsarukian, who told Aivazian that he would be ready to move his house to another location, "if only, God willing, the water level of Lake Sevan increases".

Arevhat Grigorian is a reporter for the Hetq online newspaper in Yerevan.

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