United Rivers of the Caucasus

United Rivers of the Caucasus

Throughout history, the Caucasus has continually acted as an arena of conflicting political interests and wars. Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Russians conquered this part of the world during different periods. It is not much better today – conflicts involving Artsakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia still remain unresolved and the level of animosity between people is only increasing. It seems like nothing can unite Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians and other ethnic groups of the region, with their different languages, religions, customs, etc.

Text : Vardan Melikyan


There is something that is common though – the nature, particularly the rivers flowing between all countries, such as Armenia’s Aghstev that becomes Agstafacay in Azerbaijan, or Georgia’s Mtkvari that becomes Azerbaijan’s Kur. Moreover, Kura-Arax River Basin unites not only the three nations of the Caucasus, but also Iran and Turkey. Regardless of the tensions between the nations of the region, rivers keep flowing and sooner or later there will be a need for the development of some kind of cooperation for better management of watersheds. Therefore creating increased benefits for all countries, if these countries really want to develop and prosper.
Historically, like any other important resource, water has mostly exacerbated and fueled conflicts rather than cooperation. Given the implications of climate change, it is highly likely that the same can happen in the Caucasus, if no imminent action is taken today. According to Third National Communication of the Republic of Armenia on Climate Change, by 2100 the average river flow of Armenia will decrease by around 40%, from 5,797.0 million m3 (1961-1990) to 3,602.2 million m3. Obviously, this is a serious security risk, as the water use efficiency is currently very low in all countries regionally. In Armenia alone, the annual water intake reaches up to 3 billion m3 (including groundwater intake, which accounts for about 40% of total water intake), most of which is used in agriculture, where the utilization of water-saving technologies is still at a very basic level.

Speaking of conflicts involving water, the ownership and water use issues surrounding the river Nile is certainly more known than the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict. From as early as 1891, several agreements were signed between the countries of the river Nile basin regarding water usage which has seen Egypt disproportionately benefit at the expense of the other countries. Egypt claims to have a historical right over the river, while largely neglecting the interests and needs of the rest of the countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. According to the 1929 agreement, Egypt can monitor the river flow in the rest of River Nile basin countries, pursue projects related to the river, without coordinating with upstream countries, whilst having the right to veto such projects implemented by the other countries.
To address these issues, the Nile Basin Initiative was launched in 1999 by nine countries sharing the river Nile (the above-mentioned countries, excluding South Sudan), aiming to “achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources”. Supported by key international development orgabnizations such as the World Bank, the Initiative includes important operations. Such as training on integrated water resource management, confidence-building, water use efficiency in agriculture, watershed management including reforestation and erosion control, etc.

While there are still tensions between the basin countries, with upstream countries frequently claiming to be “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using river Nile water for any development project like irrigation”, with Egypt and Sudan refusing to sign a new agreement that will change their current stake of the Nile River waters. Still, this is better than threats of war made by Egypt.
Other examples of cooperation relevant to river basin management include the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan (the relationship between them is otherwise not much better than between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance). Thanks to the treaty ratification back in 1960, the two countries have not had any water related conflicts and all issues have been resolved via respective procedures provided in the document. Within the framework of the Treaty, the Permanent Indus Commission was established in order to exchange data and to cooperate on issues pertaining to it. Despite the three wars between the two countries since 1960, the Commission has successfully implemented its objectives via regular consultations, inspections, and visits. This ensures that political tensions do not become a major headache for small farms and rural redevelopment that are heavily dependent on the availability of increasingly scarce water resources.
The situation in the Caucasus region is of course somehow different from both examples, and if there is a possibility for cooperation on river basin management between the countries of the region, then a new model needs to be developed. Most of the water resources of Armenia and Georgia are generated locally, while Azerbaijan is more dependent on the river flow coming from both Armenia and Georgia. And since it is hard to imagine any historical rights of Azerbaijan on, say, Kura River waters, the cooperation has to be based on something more than simple distribution of water shares, although that will also become increasingly important given climate change forecasts. In fact, Turkey is planning construction of a dam on the Kura River, which will result in a water shortage in Georgia and Azerbaijan and potentially Armenia.

But let’s focus on the quality of the water and the risks of disaster, which are more pressing concerns at the moment. While high in mountains, where most of the rivers of the region begin, one can safely drink the water from a river without detrimental health consequences. However, in the downstream areas of generally all rivers, the use of water is risky even for irrigation purposes. Absence of wastewater treatment systems in most of the communities, active development of mining and deforestation, lead to contamination of waters, while overgrazing and hydropower generation result in degradation of riparian zones. As a consequence, more money is spent on water treatment, health issues, infrastructure rehabilitation etc. Moreover, given the ecotourism potential of the Caucasus with its rich biodiversity and scenic landscapes, there is also lost potential income that can otherwise help solve certain social and economic issues.
Untreated domestic wastewater, mining activities and deforestation are common problems for all countries in the Caucasus and these are also the main reasons responsible for the problems in most of the watersheds. While each of the countries can potentially solve these issues alone, it is important to ensure proper management of the whole watershed because inefficient management in the upstream area can cause problems in the downstream area and vice versa. Thus, it will be more effective to conduct joint transboundary management of watersheds, including joint monitoring of water quality and quantity, the collection zones and deltas of rivers, riparian areas, etc. Implementation of reforestation projects and rehabilitation of riparian zones are the other important elements, that can be implemented jointly, at later stages.

In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Aghstev River is probably the best candidate for such a project. Unlike most of the other transboundary rivers flowing from Armenia, Aghstev is less effected by mining activities and the number of hydropower plants in this watershed are also relatively small. Another important advantage is that its collection zone is located mainly in Dilijan National Park. So, its management contains smaller potential for conflicts with other users, while benefits can be more tangible, both in terms of income generation and protection of biodiversity.
Management of Aghstev watershed can be partially based on the example of the Hudson River, where the water quality is so high that there is no need to filter the drinking water in New York City. As a result of the adoption of Watershed Rules and Regulations, which covers everything that concerns water supply, including sewer collection, storm water discharging, etc., saved about USD 6-10 billion on construction of a filtration plant, as well as USD 110 million on operation and maintenance, annually. At the same time, costs related to watershed management are less than USD 100 million and this does not include other benefits.
Evidently, the chances of cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan are very slim, especially after last April’s conflict but the building of trust has to start somewhere and sometime. Environmental management is one of the best places to start. It took India and Pakistan over 10 years to reach an agreement on the Indus waters. If Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia begin today, chances are that the next generation will be able to discuss issues related to creating a better future for everyone in the region and not war.