By Atom Markarian
Armenia is seeking as much as $900 million in additional U.S. government assistance for the next three years and would like to spend most of the money on getting its battered irrigation and drinking water infrastructure into shape, officials said Friday.
The requested extra aid would come as part of the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a scheme designed to promote political and market reforms around the world. Armenia as well as neighboring Georgia were included last spring in the first group of 16 countries eligible for it. Each of them has to present and substantiate specific aid proposals that will be considered by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government body in charge of the MCA.
According to Aram Andreasian, head of the State Committee on Water Resources, the Armenian government has already finalized its package of proposals and will submit them to Washington by the end of this month. He said two thirds of the requested sum are proposed to be used for improving patchy water supplies to Armenian households and farmers.
“As far as our [MCA] package is concerned, the water sector is in greatest need of investments,” Andreasian told a news conference after a weekly cabinet meeting.
Armenia’s notoriously inefficient drinking water network has undergone sweeping structural reforms over the past two years. The authorities promised in late 2002 that the situation with water supplies will improve radically after introduction of water consumption meters. Most Armenians have already bought and installed them at their own expense. However, change has been very slow so far.
Andreasian reiterated a government pledge to extend round-the-clock water supplies to 80 percent of the Yerevan households by the end of this year. But with less than half of them having running water for 24 hours a day at the moment, this seems highly problematic.
Even more difficult is access to irrigation water in the country’s rural areas. The problem is high on the list of grievances routinely cited by impoverished villagers.
Andreasian’s controversial predecessor, Gagik Martirosian, estimated that at least $300 million worth of capital investments will be needed for ensuring normal functioning of the sector. The government has already received some $150 million in low-interest loans from the World Bank for that purpose.
Earlier this year, an ad hoc commission of the Armenian parliament accused the government of misusing one such loan worth $30 million. The allegations were rejected by the government and the World Bank’s office in Yerevan.
Andreasian revealed that the government wants the Americans to set aside $137 million for road construction and repair in Armenia. The Armenian government would spend the rest of the requested sum on education and agriculture, he said.
The U.S. government has already allocated some $1.5 billion in regular assistance to Armenia since 1992. It remains to be seen whether it will agree to the drastic increase in aid levels sought by Yerevan.
The total amount of MCA funds made available by the administration of President George W. Bush for this year is $1 billion. The figure is expected to soar to $5 billion in 2006.