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

Georgian Ports Face Ecological Disaster

Georgia's main port of Poti and its oil terminal at Supsa are both in serious environmental danger.
By Zaza Baazov

After a summer of downpours, the local authorities in Georgia's biggest port fear a rainy autumn could spell catastrophe for their city.


Poti, as well as the nearby oil terminal at Supsa, are slowly sinking as the Black Sea rises. The latter has already encroached on around 350 hectares of land.


"Because of global warming and the melting of the glaciers, the world's oceans are rising by a millimetre a year," said Anzor Chkhotua, an ecologist who is the mayor of Poti's environmental adviser.


"In addition, the town is subsiding at about the same rate because it is built on sandy soil. Soon, perhaps even in thirty or forty years, the sea will be splashing in the place where we are sitting now."


Poti is a crucial place for the Georgian economy, and its importance is growing. Most of the country's imports and transit goods enter the country through the town, including the majority of cargos bound for Armenia.


On October 8, President Eduard Shevardnadze came to Poti to attend the opening ceremony of a new oil terminal, which is capable of holding 120,000 tonnes of oil.


Two days later, the Georgian transport and communications minister Merab Aseishvili announced that, from November, the port will serve as a transit point for humanitarian cargos heading for Afghanistan. And yet the infrastructure protecting Poti from the elements is in real danger of falling apart.


One and half metres of the base of a dam, which was built on the River Ruoni in the Fifties to protect the city from flooding, has been worn away. There is a very real danger that it will collapse, according to Georgia's Institute of Water Ecology.


In spite of this official warning, heavy trailers carrying goods bound for Armenia and Azerbaijan are still passing back and forth across the top of the dam 24 hours a day.


"There have been three government meetings on this subject but no real help has been given," said Chkhotua. "Our specialists have calculated that today, we need 1.5 million US dollars to do the repair work. If we postpone the work for another year, we will need four times that amount."


Different but equally deadly threats hang over the nearby town of Supsa, which is currently the export terminal for Azerbaijan's "early oil" travelling down a pipeline from Baku.


In a report to the UN Convention on Climate Change, the Georgian government said that if water levels continue to rise at their current level, "the River Supsa will seriously threaten the terminal and its infrastructure."


The area is already at risk of accidents involving oil tankers using the port, according to geography professor Giorgy Metreveli.


"The greatest danger is with the oil-loading buoy at the Supsa terminal," Metreveli told IWPR. He said that the pipeline goes out three km into the sea and emerges at an oil-loading buoy, at which heavy tankers are moored for two days.


He claims that it will be impossible to hold the tankers in place in the event of bad weather, and they risk being thrown against the shore.


The environmental catastrophe that would be the result of such an oil spillage could become a reality with the next decade, he warned.


If a disaster of this sort does strike, then it will threaten the rare marine life of the Paleostomi Lake, which is situated not far from the mouth of the Rioni and connected to the sea by a 500-metre channel. In the Eighties, the lake boasted 40 varieties of fish and was six metres deep. Now it has only seven varieties, which are struggling to survive in less than two and a half metres of water.


Until recently, the Black Sea villages of Maltakva, Nabada and Kundzuli were popular holiday resorts. Even now many people can be seen on the beaches, despite the notices and television and radio warnings telling people to keep away.


After bathing in the sea, even in permitted places, Giuli Berdzenishvili advises that it is best to wash with soap and "better still, knock back a glass of vodka".


Scientists warn that the Black Sea is full of dangerous quantities of bacteria and poisons coming from the Rioni which, according to Berdzenishvili, "has become a sewage channel and as a result all the filth of western Georgia is accumulating here".


In response to this mass of problems, the environment ministry developed a National Programme of Georgia for Protecting the Environment for 2000-2004, which made it a priority to repair failing infrastructure and clean up the Rioni.


"Because of lack of budget funds, we have not been able to carry out what we planned," said ministry spokesperson Maia Kalanadze. "Most of the international foundations have their own priorities and are more willing to finance the publication of brochures or the holding of training workshops than projects that are vitally important for the ecology of the country."


The Tbilisi office of the European Union aid programme Tacis confirmed it had only one environmental project in Georgia, which has now ended. It was called, "Raising the awareness of the population about the problems of the environment".


Zaza Baazov is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi