Cleaning up the Kura

The major river in the southern Caucasus seems to be everyone’s dumping ground.

Cleaning up the Kura

The major river in the southern Caucasus seems to be everyone’s dumping ground.

Friday, 13 April, 2007
Ecologists across the south Caucasus are sounding the alarm over pollution affecting the region’s major waterway, the river Kura. Industrial and municipal waste continues to find its way into the river, posing potential health hazards to people for whom its waters are a vital source of drinking water, irrigation and fish.

There have been hopes that the governments of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia might work together to reduce the sources of pollutants, helped by the assistance programmes that will become available as states move closer to joining European institutions. But so far, single and joint efforts to curb the problem have been less than successful.

The Kura flows eastward from its source in Turkey through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea. It is largely fed by tributaries in Armenia and Iran as well as Georgia.

Azerbaijan gets a whopping 40 per cent of its drinking water from the Kura, while the three million people in the capital Baku are almost entirely dependent on the river.

The Jafarov family, who live in the village of Sangan in Azerbaijan’s Salyan district, get all their water from a pool in their yard that is fed by a canal bringing water from the Kura. The water in the pool has to settle for several days before they can use it for drinking and washing.

Ecologists say the water comes from one of the most polluted stretches of the river.

Sahib Jafarov, 63, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looks much younger than his years, refuses to believe such reports. He insists he has never had any fears about the Kura water, and will go on drinking it.

“People from the public health agency come here now and then to clean my pool with chlorine,” he said. “But it’s wasted labour. Running water clears itself of dirt.”

Jafarov’s wife Pusta disagrees, complaining of kidney stones and gastrointestinal disorders. “The Kura water is the cause of all my diseases,” she said.

Officials at Azerbaijan’s ecology and water resources ministry confirm that pollution levels in the Kura are high.

Telman Zeinalov, who heads the National Ecological Forecasting Centre, said large quantities of waste from Azerbaijani industries enter the Kura, but information about this is kept quiet.

Mutallim Abdulgasanov, who heads the ecological ministry’s department for protection of ecology and nature, said a recent industrial accident – in neighbouring Armenia rather than at home – had led to toxic chemicals entering the water via tributary rivers.

“In early March, we received information that toxic substances had entered the Kura through the rivers Debet and Khram as a result of an accident at the Akhtala mining complex in Armenia,” he said. “Lab analysis revealed that the level of oil and phenol in the water was eight times higher than the norm. It’s very difficult to cleanse water that is so heavily polluted.”

Seyran Minasian of the Centre for Monitoring of Environmental Effects in Armenia dismissed allegations that the country was responsible for polluting the Kura. Water flowing from Armenia to Georgia and Azerbaijan met all the standards for safe human consumption, he said.

In Georgia, where the Kura runs the length of the country, environmentalists say levels of harmful substances have significantly increased. This was the finding of a study conducted last year by the Georgian Ecological and Biological Monitoring Association, working in collaboration with the Armenian Ecologists’ Union and Ruzgar, a green group in Azerbaijan.

The report indicated that the Kura’s fish population had diminished because oxygen levels were two to three times lower than the norm, while salt levels were double or even triple the permissible amounts.

Tengo Chkareuli, a veteran fisherman from the capital Tbilisi, through which the Kura runs, has noticed fish numbers falling away recently.

“Fishing has become difficult lately. Sometimes, it takes a whole hour to catch a single fish. Besides, the fish from the Kura are less tasty these days.”

Experts say water pollution on the Georgian stretch of the Kura is growing worse.

Nino Chkhobadze, an ecological expert and a former environment minister, said the recent emergence of large numbers of car-washes was a matter for concern. “Car-wash soaps are very harmful and will lead to the final extinction of the Kura’s fish, which are already depleted,” she said.

Both urban waste and effluents from large industrial, mining and chemical plants contribute to polluting the Kura and its Georgian tributaries.

Rusudan Simonidze, programme coordinator with Georgia’s Friends of the Earth, says there has been some reduction in pollution since the demise of other Soviet-era industries.

But she warned that the river’s ability to regenerate had been offset by new problems like the car-wash waste.

“In many places the Kura is covered in an oily film,” she said.

Filtration systems remain poor on the river. Of the many installations, only one – on the stretch between Tbilisi and Rustavi – is functional, and it simply involves mechanical sifting rather than actual purification.

Attempts to address this cross-border issue in a strategic way have faltered.

The Georgian authorities have been working on a plan to create integrated management of the Kura river and its resources. But although the plan should have been ready in 2005, the environment ministry only began working on it in early 2006. According to Mariam Makarova, head of the government department for protecting water resources, the work is currently on hold.

“A transboundary diagnostic study has been conducted under the project, and priorities have been set. A strategic plan and national programmes for all three countries in the region have been drafted,” she said. “I am hoping the project will resume in the summer of 2007.”

Applying international ecological standards to the Kura river basin would require Georgia to meet and adhere to the terms of a European Union framework document dealing with water issues from October 2000. That will be difficult, since as Kakha Tamarashvili, director of the Ecological and Biological Monitoring Association, points out, the current water protection standards date from Soviet times.

“It’s essential to adopt European or American standards…. but it’s unlikely they will be introduced in Georgia even by 2010,” said Tamarashvili.

Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent with the newspaper Aina/Zerkalo in Baku, Azerbaijan. Dea Managadze is a correspondent with Novaya Gazeta in Kutaisi, Georgia. Naira Bulghadarian is a correspondent with the Grazhdanskaya Initsiativa newspaper in Vanadzor, Armenia.

This article was produced as part of the Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network, with the financial assistance from the European Union. The article does not reflect the views of the EU.

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