Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Parched Heartland

Government decides to draw more water from already overstretched resources.
By Lilit Arakelyan

Desperate to address growing water shortages in the Ararat valley, the Armenian authorities have taken extreme measures by reopening disused wells and boosting the outflow from Lake Sevan.

The valley covers the Armavir and Ararat regions, and serves as Armenia’s breadbasket.

Experts say the over-consumption of water has nothing to do with agricultural irrigation and that instead, it is a result of a recent growth industry, fish farming. They say the authorities should be regulating and curbing the fish farms rather than drawing off unsustainable amounts from the lake and groundwater reserves.

Local farmers say that agriculture is becoming unsustainable as water becomes scarce.

“I sold my 3,000-square-metere plot because there was no water to irrigate it,” Hranush Aghasyan, a smallholder in the Ararat region, told IWPR. “We only have a small garden in our yard….. We don’t even have drinking water. The water we get is either dirty or smells terrible.”

Hovhannes Grigoryan from the village of Goravan, also in Ararat region, is one of many who have to buy in water to keep their crops irrigated. He pays 6,000 drams (15 US dollars) for 6,000 litres – enough to keep his vegetable plot going for ten days.

On August 14, the government approved an increase in the volume of water taken from Lake Sevan from 170 to 270 million cubic metres a year. Though a large increase, it is not the maximum possible – parliament changed the law in 2012 to allow a 320 cu m annual outflow.

The increase runs contrary to the aims of a World Bank-backed programme launched in 2002 which has seen water levels rise by more than four metres, partially restoring the steady decline since 1949 caused by Soviet schemes to channel off water from Armenia’s major freshwater resource. (See Setback for Armenia's Lake Sevan and Trout Fishing in Armenia.)

The decision followed another policy reverse in mid-July in which the authorities ruled that 220 artesian wells in the Ararat valley should be put back into use. The previous policy was to mothball wells or remove them completely so as not to overuse groundwaters.

According to Ruben Yadoyan, who heads a non-government group called Geological Engineer, there is no scientific method to the way wells are used in the Ararat valley region. No geological surveys are done, there are no relevant maps, and no one regulates how much is drawn off.

“It isn’t a bucket of water,” he said. “There’s a whole dynamic to water resources.”

Seyran Minasyan of the Institute for Chemical Physics says the valley’s groundwaters are being depleted.

“The fact is that more water is taken out of the Ararat valley’s basin than the replenishing reserves allow,” he said. “It’s estimated that replenishing water reserves amount to one billion cubic metres on an annualised basis, but 1.7 billion cu m is being consumed.”


Environmentalists say the Ararat valley’s water shortage is due mainly to the nearly 270 fish farms set up in artificial ponds which consume great volumes of water, much of it from specially-dug wells. (IWPR reported on this in 2010 in Armenia Worries Over Groundwater Depletion.) 

Critics of government policy on fish farms say the reason their water consumption is not regulated is that many belong to powerful politicians.

“The government is doing nothing to improve the situation, and is just acting to satisfy the business interests of a few individuals,” Inga Zarafyan, head of the Ecolur environmental group Ecolur, told IWPR.

In December 2013, Zaruhi Postanjyan of the Heritage Party told fellow members of parliament that fish farm owners included several of their number and the prime minister.

“The government is lobbying for the interests of large fish-farming businesses,” she said.

Armenia’s agriculture ministry insists it taking new steps to improve water management. In a statement for IWPR, the ministry’s public relations office said new boreholes were banned, illegal ones would be shut down by a special commission, and legal wells would be numbered and monitored. New reservoirs will be constructed to ensure arable farm have the irrigation water they need, and there is a plan to reduce water use by fish farms by 70 per cent.


Mikael Melkumyan, a member of parliament from the Prosperous Armenia party, doubts the government will succeed in imposing a system that reconciles the conflicting interests of agriculture and fish farming.

Minasyan argues that current government policy lacks coherence.

“First they say that water resources in the Ararat valley are declining so they need to compensate by letting off more water from Lake Sevan, then they say they plan to reopen 112 wells,” he told IWPR. “Lake Sevan and the Ararat valley are Armenia’s most vital areas, and they are being destroyed by policies of this kind.”

Lilit Arakelyan is a reporter for Araratnews.am.

 

More IWPR's Global Voices