Water Complicates Karabakh Peace Talks

Armenians fear losing important source of water in negotiations over future of the territory.

Water Complicates Karabakh Peace Talks

Armenians fear losing important source of water in negotiations over future of the territory.

Friday, 17 September, 2010

The Armenian residents of the town they call Karvachar boast of the quality and quantity of their water.

“We have the most delicious and cleanest water. It does not need filtering. You can drink it straight from the river. Apart from this, in Karvachar, unlike in many regions and towns of Karabakh, the water comes round-the-clock,” said Alexander Kananyan, who has lived in the town for nine years.

And their water is valued beyond the town. Nagorny Karabakh, a state carved out of Soviet Azerbaijan by local Armenians, relies on this region for more than 80 per cent of its drinking supply.

The trouble, however, is that Karvachar has another name: Kelbajar, by which it is known to ethnic Azeris, as well as on maps of the region from Soviet times and before. Unlike most of Karabakh, the town did not form part of the Autonomous Region of Nagorny Karabakh within Soviet Azerbaijan, and that means it is treated separately in peace talks currently going on.

Therefore, experts say that if Baku gets its way, the town will be returned to its control whatever the fate of Karabakh, which has declared independence but not been recognised as an independent state by any members of the United Nations.

"The peace deal currently under discussion, like almost all others, envisages the return of almost all the seven Azerbaijani regions which are now wholly or partially under Armenian military control in exchange for some kind of 'interim international status' for Nagorny Karabakh itself and the promise of a popular vote in the future on its final status,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on Caucasus issues at the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Programme.

“There will be a special status for Lachin, which is the land bridge between Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh and it is anticipated that Kelbajar, the largest Azerbaijan region under Armenian control, which is strategically situated between Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, will be handed back later than the other provinces.”

But Karabakh Armenians insist even that is unacceptable. Leaving aside the fact that under its constitution, the republic claims all territory that it currently controls, not just the territory of the Soviet-era Autonomous Region, they see the district between Karabakh and Armenia as crucial to their security.

“The territory of Karabakh within the administrative border of the Autonomous Region is extremely vulnerable from the point of view of securing its water resources. The lion’s share of water resources in the former Autonomous Region has its origin outside of its administrative limits. The rivers Terter and Khachen, which start within the Karvachar region, bring in 83.4 per cent of the yearly average of Karabakh’s main water supply,” said David Babayan, who has studied water issues in Karabakh for several years.

“Today, Nagorny Karabakh is in a position to almost entirely provide for its own environmental security and its water resources, and in this context the Karvachar region plays a key role… Therefore, if we lose this region the water security of Karabakh would be under serious threat.”

Most of the present-day residents of the town and its neighbouring region are ethnic Armenians who fled areas currently controlled by Azeri troops during the Karabakh war, which ended with a ceasefire in 1994 but which has not been resolved.

Peace talks are chaired by France, Russia and the United States, who make up the so-called Minsk Group, but have not moved forward significantly in the face of irreconcilable differences between the two sides.

Azerbaijan insists on regaining control of the territory it lost but local residents like Marianna Hovsepyan, who moved to the town from Sumgait, the scene of three days of anti-Armenian riots in 1988 that marked the start of major bloodshed between the two ethnic communities, are adamant they would never allow that to happen.

“How could you even consider it,” she asked. “We with difficulty built here a second house, got our lives together, and now it’s not clear what’s waiting for us. This will never happen. Even when Karabakh president Bako Sahakyan came to Karvachar, he said, ‘As long as Karabakh exists and I want to assure you all that it will always exist, Karvachar will be part of it.’”

Local residents well understand the importance of their town to the future of the whole South Caucasus.

“Of course, the region has a strategic significance, because water is an important resource of the future, and not just of the present day. In worsening environmental conditions in the future, it will be a necessary and expensive resource,” said Alexander Kananyan, a 36-year-old a local resident.

“And of course, I’m not even talking about the military-strategic significance of the Karvachar region. This it the highest and most invulnerable part of Karabakh, and as a result whoever owns it, owns all of Karabakh.”

Karine Ohanyan is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert.

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