Armenia Worries Over Groundwater Depletion

Concerns that fish farms could deprive agricultural land of irrigation.

Armenia Worries Over Groundwater Depletion

Concerns that fish farms could deprive agricultural land of irrigation.

Fish farm in the Ararat valley. (Photo: Galust Nanyan)
Fish farm in the Ararat valley. (Photo: Galust Nanyan)
Wednesday, 20 October, 2010

Armenia’s government is worried that the growth in fish farming in the Ararat valley could use up the country’s precious groundwater.

Armenia’s largest valley is home to 234 fish farms, which use 800 million cubic metres of water a year. This is a huge volume of water for a landlocked country, which only permits an annual limit of 170 million m3 to be pumped out of Lake Sevan for irrigation.

Worried residents of the Ararat valley, which sits above 60 per cent of the country’s 2.4 billion m3 of underground water reserves, say the farms could cause pollution of groundwater and deprive agricultural land of irrigation.

Some farmers say they have lost their only sources of water for their crops since fish farmers began digging down to 150 m, rather than the previous depth of 110 m, to access water.

“In the last two or three years water reserves in the Ararat valley have significantly fallen, and this has become a problem. Water in the Ararat valley is not only used for fish farming, but for drinking and for irrigation. We need to find a way to prevent the ruthless exploitation of the water reserves, which would cause serious consequences,” said Armen Gevorgyan, minister for territorial administration, and chairman of a special government commission set up to investigate the issue.

The commission’s report painted a picture of an almost-unregulated industry. It said that only 27 of the 87 fish farms in the Ararat region’s half of the valley had the correct paperwork, with the rest being classified as agricultural or industrial enterprises, while none of the 147 that fall within the Armavir region had the right license.

Also, none of the fish farms had water meters, or used systems intended to maximise their water efficiency. On top of that, 109 fish farms lacked the correct drainage systems.

Experts say that fish farms, instead of using the water multiple times, just discard it after one use, pouring it into rivers or drains for disposal.

“The drainage systems which carry rain and groundwater are wearing out in those regions where there are a lot of fish farms,” said Vova Tadevosyan, director of Meloratsiya, a state committee on water use, who argues that the fish farms risk turning the valley into a desert.

Experts argue that the environment ministry has not done enough to prevent the digging of deep wells. Sanasar Baghdasaryan, head of the environment section in the Armavir region administration’s agriculture department, said that a local investigation as far back as 2007 showed that the wells were being dug too deep.

“Drilling is being conducted without basic checks, therefore in some areas of 10,000 m2, up to seven wells are operating. The digging of wells and their use is not being controlled,” he said.

An official of the environment ministry’s water department, who asked not to be named because he was criticising his own department, agreed that there were too many wells and worried that no checks were being made on their use.

“A few years ago we were giving out permission on water use right and left. Sadly, we don’t even now know the quantity of our national water reserves, which were last measured 20 to 25 years ago. We are treating our water reserves very badly,” the official said.

Such licenses have massively increased the amount of groundwater used in the country. In 1984, the authorities said that 1.25 m3 could be extracted from underground sources every year. Currently, license holders have the right to extract 2.75 billion m3, more than twice the level set by the Soviet authorities.

The environment ministry declined to comment on these figures, but the issue is beginning to gain prominence among the public. At the start of the 1990s, the village of Hayanist had 80 wells, but 61 of them have since run dry, worrying residents who depend on them for water.

“If they drilled another 20 metres, then the water would be good quality and the well would not be dry. But what have they done? A few years ago, a fish farm was opened not far from our region and their wells pump out water,” a resident said.

“Those who build these pools are rich, and they have four wells instead of one. Whatever we do, we’ll lose anyway,” one of his neighbours said.

In the neighbouring village of Hovtashat, residents have the same problem. In the 1990s, the received 4.5 m3 of water a second from their 98 wells, but now they only get 2.5 m3, and 40 of the wells have gone dry.

“The owners of the fish farms are using groundwater ruthlessly, and their waste flows into the drainage system. As a result, the ground is too dry and suffers from salinisation. Concurrently, because of the unrestrained use of groundwater, our reserves are falling, and some wells have completely dried up,” said Simon Andreasyan, head of the village council.

Galust Nanyan is a freelance journalist.

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