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

Yerevan's Winter Disaster Zone

Life has been a nightmare for apartment block dwellers in the Armenian capital this winter
By Tigran Avetisian

First came the cold, and then the thaw. Yerevan's decaying infrastructure could not cope with either.


"Our family will never forget December 2002," said Rita, who lives in a tall apartment block in the suburb of the city known by locals as Bangladesh. Her husband is working in Russia as a builder to support his mother, wife and two children in Yerevan.


"My husband sent us some money so we could celebrate New Year properly," Rita said. "But on December 30 the sewage pipe in the basement froze and then burst - and all the waste of thid sixteen-storey building passes through our flat."


It is impossible to stay long in Rita's apartment because of the foul smell and she has been looking for a new place her family can live in until spring comes. Her neighbours, also driven out by the stench, had to move out all their possessions and now fear they are all unusable.


The crisis in Rita's block - and many others - was caused by a bitterly cold winter. New Year temperatures sank to minus 30 degrees Centigrade for the first time in seven decades, freezing pipes across the city. This problem was compounded by the fact that only around 10 per cent of the capital's apartment buildings are heated.


When the temperature shot up to five degrees centigrade in early January, the pipes thawed and the authorities rushed to chlorinate the water to prevent an outbreak of gastric diseases. However, many buildings were not repaired in time to prevent further problems. "When it warmed up, the water pipe in the basement of our house burst and the whole basement flooded," said Sarkis and Nelli, an elderly couple who live in the Ararat region.


"Then it got cold again - and now the whole place is like an ice rink," Sarkis said, adding that the authorities have warned residents of their block that the service will not be restored until spring.


The winter has exposed the miserable state of Yerevan's six thousand or so Soviet-era apartment blocks, most of which are now in a chronic state of disrepair.


Up until the winter of 1992, all of them were centrally heated by the state. But the war with Azerbaijan and the resultant energy crisis and lack of fuel meant Armenians spent two years without any central heating at all.


Heating began gradually to return in 1996, but the number of heated homes fell again in 1998 as fuel prices went up. It can cost 200 US dollars to heat a two-bedroom apartment over the winter.


Moreover, all the equipment is getting very old. According to officials in the Yerevan mayor's office, the bathroom and toilet systems in many apartment blocks have not been repaired for two or three decades. This winter, much of that equipment simply stopped working.


"We have not seen cold temperatures like this in Yerevan since 1933," the capital's Robert Nazarian told residents in a special television address. "We weren't ready for this turn of events. It will be a good lesson for us."


The government issued an emergency order for the city to receive all its budget allocations for the first quarter of 2003 immediately to repair all the damaged buildings. It is now looking for long-term foreign aid to repair its crumbling infrastructure.


Government sources told IWPR that the World Bank among others is considering funding a series of projects aimed at restoring urban services in Yerevan and other cities. A decision on the projects will be taken this summer, and then passed to the United States parliament for approval. It's thought that the investment in the capital's water system alone will amount to 30 million dollars.


In the meantime, many in the capital are accusing the local government of mismanagement. "The city housing authority was too weak to do anything about the falling temperatures," said Saak, who lives in a tower block in Yerevan's Nork heights. "But it shouldn't have been so vulnerable. That is not right."


Tigran Avetisian is a journalist with Orran newspaper in Yerevan.


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