Noah’s Valley is drying up

Corruption, ill-conceived fish farming and mismanagement are contributing to a water crisis in Armenia’s Ararat Valley. 

Thomas Cyrs
4 July 2016
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The Ararat Valley has supported agriculture for thousands of years. (c) Greg Rafferty.A water crisis is currently unfolding in Armenia’s Ararat Valley, one of the world’s most ancient agricultural regions. Stretching beneath Mount Ararat (of biblical fame) and lying along the present-day Turkish-Armenian border, the valley has long provided a renewable source of groundwater in the South Caucasus. It is now being pushed far beyond sustainable limits.

While the impacts of this crisis won’t grab headlines like the link between water loss and ongoing conflict in the Tigris and Euphrates River basin, or the drying up of the Jordan and its role in creating further animosity between Israel and its neighbours, the cause for concern is still great. The Ararat Valley serves as the primary breadbasket region for Armenia, a country in political and economic transition.

Unchecked depletion of the valley’s groundwater threatens to undo progress and drive increased poverty, inequality, and instability in the country, as well as trigger the loss of another of the world’s vital sources of water and food security. Greater engagement and transparency on local and international levels, however, can still prevent the worst effects of water scarcity from taking place.

An ancient resource rapidly drying up

The Ararat Valley currently accounts for some 40-50% of Armenia’s agricultural production. Natural groundwater resources, fed by snowmelt, rainfall, and local river systems, have sustained agriculture in the region for several thousands of years. The region has supported neolithic settlements (dating back as early as 6,000 BC), byzantine-era cities with towering churches and monasteries, and currently contains a wealth of orchards, vineyards, and other high value crops.

In spite of the long history, the region’s natural springs and wells are now rapidly drying up. This situation forces farmers to sell no-longer productive land, creating an unprecedented threat of desertification. 

The factors which have led to unsustainable groundwater depletion in Armenia’s Ararat Valley are not unique to the region or the country, with the familiar litany of issues running as follows: 1) water users pay little to nothing for the water they withdraw or the electricity used to pump it; 2) regulation has not caught up with increased access provided by cheap well drilling and pumping technology; 3) a privileged class of citizens with government ties and an outsized share of wealth (often referred to as “oligarchs” in Armenia and the post-Soviet sphere in general) are able to take advantage of lax regulations and cheap inputs in order to profit from water-intensive enterprises; 4) state agencies have little to no resources to properly monitor water withdrawals, and are easily persuaded or bribed to ignore the situation; 5) the public, in turn, often feels powerless to demand change even if they are aware of the problem.

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A fish farming operation in the Ararat Valley. Fish farms in the region most often utilise highly inefficient "open flow" systems that do not recycle water before it is discharged back into the environment. (c) Greg Rafferty.In the Ararat Valley, these problems are exemplified most notably by a poorly regulated and wasteful fish farming industry. Virtually non-existent some 20 years ago, the industry grew to nearly 200 operating farms in the Ararat Valley by 2013. It now accounts for over 50% of the annual water abstraction from the Ararat Valley’s groundwater resources.

In other words, in a matter of years, fish farming has come to eclipse traditional agriculture in terms of the total amount of water used. While the state issues Water Use Permits (WUPs) that are intended to limit water use, fish farms have been known to withdraw as much as four times the amount allowed by their permits. Worse still, there are a significant number of illegal wells operating without WUPs in the region.

A threat to stability and development

While fish farms have been able to turn a quick profit, a cascade of negative impacts have begun to surface as a result of the region’s shrinking water table. 

There have been public health and safety issues, as an increasing number of communities have faced partially or completely dried up water wells (a total of 31 by 2014). Problems for traditional agriculture and farming have arisen as well, as lower levels of underground artisanal water have led to a loss of soil moisture, resulting in an increased need for irrigation water and lower soil fertility. Depleted groundwater has also threatened to create an energy crisis, as some of the natural springs currently drying-up feed directly into the cooling system necessary for Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant, which produces nearly a third of the country’s electricity.

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Fields lying fallow in the Ararat Valley. In recent years, depleted water supplies has placed increasing pressure on traditional agriculture as more fields go un-irrigated. (c) Anna Kirakosyan.These impacts threaten to unravel economic and political development in the fledgling South Caucasus republic. Since the economic turmoil brought by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Armenia has progressed a great deal. Life expectancy, education, and per-capita income have all risen steadily over the last two decades, and Armenia compares favorably to regional peers in the areas of civil society, independent media, and democratic governance.

Fundamental to this progress, however, is secure and equal access to water, the loss of which will assuredly lead to a rolling back of equality, economic opportunity and possibly political rights.

Moving towards solutions

In recent years, the Armenian government has begun responding to the issue with some encouraging steps. In order to shift the highly skewed status quo of economic costs and benefits of water use in the region, the government has increased water withdrawal fees for fisheries from the previous rate of 1 AMD per cubic meter (a-fifth of one penny) for 5% of all water withdrawn to 1 AMD per cubic meter for 50% of all water withdrawn.

Armenia’s Ministry of Agriculture has also mandated that fisheries use semi-closed water recycling systems (which can yield significant water savings compared to open systems by which fisheries have expel water after one use) and have begun closing wells operating illegally without water use permits.

Yet resistance from the fish-farming industry and poor institutional capacity to monitor and enforce regulations have remained major hurdles. Fisheries in the Ararat Valley have proven to be lucrative business enterprises, and owners of these operations typically have powerful ties. At least five fish farming companies are reported to be partially or fully registered under Armenia’s prime minister and his relatives, for example. This has left many skeptical of whether or not new regulations will have a significant impact.

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Fields lying fallow in the Ararat Valley. In recent years, depleted water supplies has placed increasing pressure on traditional agriculture as more fields go un-irrigated. (c) Anna Kirakosyan.To combat these issues, a combination of transparency and increased involvement from local, governmental, and international groups is needed.

A the local level, Armenia has a wide network of active NGOs in the environmental sector, a few of which include Policy Forum Armenia, Armenia Tree Project, Armenian Environmental Network, and Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment. These groups have been engaged in sustainable water issues for many years, particularly on issues surrounding Armenia’s Lake Sevan and pollution by the mining sector. In other words, there is already local capacity to place pressure on excessive water users.

State agencies must also be given a clear mandate and sufficient resources from the Armenian government in order to carry out their responsibilities. So long as enforcement agencies remain cash-strapped with limited resources and are susceptible to bribery, water use permits will likely remain largely superficial and be violated with impunity.

International aid organisations have been playing a more active role lately in the Ararat Valley. They should continue to do so. Currently, USAID and the US Geological Survey are providing resources to conduct studies on the Ararat Valley’s groundwater aquifers, develop capacity for state monitoring organisations, and recommend policy solutions for more sustainable use. Such activities have the potential to bring in much needed resources and raise awareness on an international level.

Preserving heritage and preventing crisis

In critical agricultural regions across the globe, water tables are being depleted past sustainability tipping points. While all cases of water scarcity are cause for concern and action, the loss of some of our world’s most historic watersheds such as the Ararat Valley should strike an additional, painful nerve in our collective consciousness. 

As we have seen in other recent cases of regional water systems running dry, the impacts of desertification can have wide-ranging and unpredictable spillover effects as livelihoods are destroyed and instability is created. 

Long-term drying trends cannot be reversed, and some effects of climate change cannot be prevented. Despite this, much can be done to improve transparency, regulation, and overall sustainability to ensure that we adapt to trends rather than witness the additional loss of livelihoods and cultural heritage.

Environmental initiatives are on the rise in Armenia. Find out more about protest mobilisation in this South Caucasus republic here.

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