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

Azeri Officials in Firing Line Over Floods

Villagers say they were forced to battle the rising waters unaided.
By Idrak Abbasov

Officials have been accused of inaction after some 30,000 people fled their homes in Azerbaijan when the Kura, the biggest river in the South Caucasus, burst its banks. 

One man was confirmed dead, while another five deaths are suspected, in the country’s worst floods for a century.

The floods have occurred in four regions of Azerbaijan, state news agency Azertag said, affecting 20,000 homes and more than 50,000 hectares of agricultural land, destroying 300 houses and seriously damaging another 2,000.

Desperate efforts to contain the water failed on the night of May 18, when a 40 metre stretch of the embankment collapsed near the village of Chiqirdag in the Sabirabad region.

The whole village was flooded as a result, the 12th to be submerged so far. Another seven villages and the town of Salyan are under threat.

Villagers say they were forced to battle the rising waters unaided, and claim officials did not take expert warnings on the danger of a major flood seriously.

“If we had been provided with machines in time, if our pleas had been listened to, the Kura would not have flooded our homes,” said Eynali Hamidov, 59, who says he and other residents of Chiqirdag frantically piled sandbags onto the river bank, but did not have the strength to stop the flooding.

The emergencies ministry said it was doing all it could, while other officials were not available to respond to the allegations.

“We react only after something happens. But all the same those serving alongside us took as much preventive action as they could, helped to set up embankments, dig canals and so on,” said emergencies ministry spokesman Tural Museyibov.

In areas where experts have managed to restore the embankments, and stop the inflow of water, the picture is catastrophic. An IWPR reporter was stunned by the filth the river had left behind: rotting fish; drowned animals; and raw sewage. Swarms of mosquitoes have bred in the pools of water left behind and are plaguing the clean-up crews.

Houses have crumbled as the water has dissolved their cement walls, and crops have been destroyed. Large parts of the affected regions, which are in the lowlands close to the Caspian Sea, are major producers of fruit and vegetables. They now resemble marshland and no efforts to control the spread of infections appear to have been made.

“I was one of the people strengthening the embankment of the Kura. Suddenly the embankment burst, and I, like everyone else, fled the village with just my wife and children. Two cows, one bull, chickens, chicks, just everything I had ended up under water,” said Etibar Mammadov, 37, a resident of the village of Ulajali, about 50 kilometres from Chiqirdag.

His complaint was one heard all along the affected area.

“We are in a very difficult situation. We have all been put together into the school: children, old people, pregnant women. There is only one toilet for everyone, and no bathroom at all. And we only get buckwheat and porridge to eat,” said Mader Amanzade, 42, from the village of Shikhlar.

A tent camp has been erected in the town of Shirvan for the residents of the flooded villages, and President Ilham Aliev and his cabinet held an emergency meeting there on May 1. The people in the camp are given food, water, medical assistance and clothing.

According to the ecology and natural resources ministry, some 2,415 cubic metres of water are flowing down the Kura every second, which is the highest amount recorded in a century, and more than double the normal flow. The ministry has warned that reservoirs both in Azerbaijan and in neighbouring Iran are filling at a worrying rate.

Experts say the water level has been rising for 20 days and has reached critical levels, with officials blaming high rainfall in the mountains and melting glaciers.

On May 19, Aliev ordered the prime minister to head a government commission on tackling the after-effects of the disaster. He assigned 400 million manats (500 million US dollars) for the task, and said compensation for lost property will be calculated later.

But Panah Huseyn, an opposition member of parliament from the Sabirabad region, said that was too little too late. He blamed the government for failing to do the dredging works necessary to keep the river flowing freely.

“For the last 15 years, the Kura delta has not been cleaned out, and embankments have not been built. The water cannot reach the sea, and the depth of water in the delta is only 25-30 centimetres. Silt has blocked the route to the sea for this water. These officials have stolen the millions assigned by the budget to dredging the delta and building embankments,” he said.

Officials from relevant government bodies were not available to comment on the allegations, but at the meeting on May 19 in Shirvan, Ahmed Ahmedzade, head of the department of reclamation and water resources, told Aliev that officials had been caught out by the extreme weather conditions.

“We conducted strengthening work, but we could not expect that this year the quantity of precipitation would reach such a record. Therefore, our preventive measures turned out to be inadequate,” he said.

Idrak Abbasov is a journalist from Ayna newspaper, and participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. 

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