Pollution in Border Reservoir Worries Armenia

Future health of the vital water resource ultimately depends on restoration of ties between Armenia and Turkey.

Pollution in Border Reservoir Worries Armenia

Future health of the vital water resource ultimately depends on restoration of ties between Armenia and Turkey.

Armenian environmentalists fear the important reservoir dividing their country from Turkey is increasingly polluted, posing dangers to the health of people consuming crops grown from its waters.

The Akhurian reservoir is a crucial asset to both Armenia and Turkey. Holding 525 million cubic metres of water, it irrigates almost 104,000 hectares of agricultural land in both countries.

The reservoir, which entered into active service in 1980, straddles 20 kilometres of the state border in the middle reaches of the Akhurian river.

Armenian researchers first raised the alarm after delving into the ecosystem of the reservoir a few years ago. They say the water system is polluted with heavy metals and different toxic materials.

But with no cooperation between Armenian and Turkish ecologists, they fear there is little they can do about it.

The ecologists say the reservoir contains no self-cleaning mechanisms that can either absorb or remove excess traces of heavy metals.

These move from one biological system to another, interacting with various living organisms and having potentially dangerous consequences for humans who consume them.

“Our investigation discovered small concentrations of heavy metals in the reservoir that can’t be overlooked,” said Levon Martirosian, head of the of the Geophone Research Institute that carried out the survey.

“Heavy metals can intoxicate the cultivated vegetation through irrigation water; these pollutants also accumulate in different fish tissues.”

Heavy metals and their compounds can penetrate into the human body through mouth, skin and mucus membrane. They exit through the kidney, liver, stomach, gut membrane, perspiratory glands and salivary glands, infecting the organs as they do so.

A characteristic feature of mercury and lead intoxication is stomatitis, complicated by gum erosion, ulcers and bleeding, while arsen and copper poisoning more often results in gastric problems. Blood intoxication is accompanied by hematocytolysis (more characteristic of arsen and copper poisoning) and anemia.

Martirosian says his team became aware of the problem in the reservoir after a Swiss company bought a 60-hectare apricot orchard near the reservoir a few years ago.

Intending to export the fruit, the company wanted packages with labels designating the fruit an ecologically clean product.

For this purpose, they ordered an examination of the irrigation water. And so, in 2002, environmental research on the ecosystem of the Akhurian reservoir began.

From the start, the Armenian specialists knew their survey would be incomplete, because they had no means of finding out the quantity or dynamics of harmful substances penetrating the reservoir from the Turkish side.

Since the 1980s, Armenian and Turkish officials have met monthly from spring till autumn in the village of Jrapi to talk over the issue of water and particularly the Akhurian reservoir.

But these meetings solely concern the amount of water to be released for irrigation, while other issues are not addressed.

Owing to the lack of official cooperation or sharing of environmental information between ecologists, Martirosian visited Turkey in a private capacity to sound out some contacts.

“I went to Kars for three times as a tourist in 2004 and 2005 because it was impossible to organise an official visit connected with our investigation,” recalled Martirosian.

“I tried to find some environmental organisation or stakeholders there but it was useless.

“There wasn’t a single public organisation with which to start even informal cooperation.”

Moreover, on his visit to Kars, Martirosian spotted some alarming sights: a leather recycling plant in the town and a sugar factory on the outskirts.

The expert says he feared waste from those plants might be flowing into the reservoir through the river Kars.

An additional area of concern is the amount of domestic garbage flowing into the lake from the river Akhurian on the Armenian side.

The river Gyumri also carries sewage to the reservoir. The amount of waste brought in by another river, the Kars, is not yet known.

Armenian ecologists want a more detailed survey of the entire reservoir ecosystem, including surveys on the territory of neighbouring Turkey.

They want an investigation into the annual dynamics of the water, micro-flora and fauna, as well as the local foliage and particularly the cultivated vegetation areas irrigated by the reservoir.

The reservoir is now almost half a century old – fruit of the once cordial relations between Turkey and the old Soviet Union.

A mixed Soviet-Turkish commission signed the agreement to construct the lake on April 25, 1963. The agreement regulated the flow of four rivers into the lake – the Akhurian, Kars, Karakhan and Chorli.

Seyran Minasian, head of the Laboratory Investigations Department of the Environmental Impact Monitoring Centre (part of the Armenian environment ministry), who took part in the survey of Akhurian reservoir ecosystem in 2002, is more optimistic than some of his colleagues.

He maintains that the extent of heavy metal pollution is not as alarming as some say and that levels of concentration are not dangerous.

But Minasian agrees that the Turkish government is unlikely to be much concerned about pollution in the remote east of the country.

“We know the Turkish government carries out water monitoring but prefers not to spend money on the eastern regions of the country,” he said.

“It’s obvious that the quantity, not quality, of the Araks and Akhurian rivers water is what’s most important for Turkey.”

The Armenian side, in turn, says that since 2006, at the request of the environment ministry, the Environmental Impact Monitoring Centre, has been surveying the reservoir periodically.

But Minasian says these investigations cost money, and even richer, developed countries only monitor water whenever it is necessary.

Many river protection groups in Europe and America successfully involve community members in research and monitoring works.

These groups mainly consist of high-school pupils and residents of the river and reservoir areas. They participate in special seminars, which explain the impact of water and environmental pollution to local people. It often turns out that as a result, people simply stop polluting the environment.

Meanwhile, Armenian researchers say the issue of starting a dialogue with Turkey on the reservoir, its maintenance and development, remains a primary goal.

Artush Mkrtchian, head of the Caucasus Business and Development Network Gyumri office, links the fate of the reservoir to the overall issue of the closed borders.

He has been working in the field of Armenian-Turkish relations for nine years, organising programmes aimed at creating dialogue between the estranged peoples.

Mkrtcian has always believed the borders will re-open some day, mainly as a result of European Union pressure on Turkey.

“Turkey’s long-standing attempts to become a member of the European Union as well as Armenia’s own economic and national interests mean that sooner or later they will open the borders, ” said Mkrtchian.

He notes that business cooperation between the two countries has quietly grown in recent years.

As one example of collaboration, he cites an agreement hateched in 2007 between cheese-makers from Gyumri in Armenia, Ninotsminda in Georgia and Kars in Turkey to market a single product.

As a result of this cooperation, a new brand of “Caucasian” cheese was launched in Gyumri in May 2008, whose label notes that it was produced in all three towns. Producers from Georgia and Turkey came to Armenia for the event.

Currently, there are similar plans to market a new brand of Caucasian wine, involving vintners from Cappadocia in Turkey and the Ararat Valley.

Artush Mkrtchian notes that trade between the two countries has always been active, and is currently worth about 100 million US dollars a year.

Mkrtchian says the problems concerning dialogues between businessmen occur mainly when those businessmen have close ties to their respective political structures.

As for the ecological problems, he believes their resolution hangs on the success, or failure, of the current efforts to end the Turkish-Armenian diplomatic impasse.

“Water resources are state property, which means that the problem should be talked over by the governments of Armenia and Turkey,” he said.

“But these countries simply do not exist for each other [diplomatically]. Hence, the problem will remain unresolved until the establishment of diplomatic relations.”

Levon Martirosian, of the Geophone ecological organisation, says international pressure on both sides remains the reservoir’s best hope.

Steps should be taken to ensure the opening of a dialogue with Turkey through the mediation of some international ecological organisation or other stakeholders.

There have been several successful examples of international mediation in environmental matters in the region in recent years.

Since 2006, for example, branches of the international conservation organisation WWF in Armenia and Germany and Armenia’s environment ministry have been working on a programme to protect the Armenian-populated Samtskhe Javakheti region in Georgia, which Armenians call Javakhq, and the Shirak region in Armenia. The programme is funded by the German government-owned development bank, KFW.

The programme aims to maintain the biological diversity of the uplands of the Javakhq and the Shirak regions and support local communities through the creation of the Arpi Lake National Park.

Initially, three countries were involved in the programme – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. But as Azerbaijan refused to join, Turkey’s participation is being discussed, because the Shirak region borders also with Turkey.

Goyets Shuerholts, an international expert on land-utilisation issues, says European countries are very interested in water protection issues well beyond Europe’s borders.

“From an ecological view borders don’t exist, as the elements of the natural world, including the wildlife, and flora and fauna, are in a state of permanent flux,” said Shouerholts.

He sees programmes to set up so-called “peace parks” – national parks lying on the borders of estranged countries, overlapping their frontiers – as a means of “easing tension between the countries and starting a dialogue.

“I think the opening of such a programme concerning the Akhurian reservoir would certainly promote the establishment of friendly relations between the two countries.”

Yeranuhi Soghoyan is freelance journalist in Gyumri, Armenia.
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists