Citing the need to support a key agricultural region, the Armenian government has announced controversial plans to nearly double the use of water from the ecologically vital Lake Sevan for irrigation purposes this year.
Environmentalists warned on Friday that this could reverse a decade-long rise in Sevan’s water level seen as critical for saving its endangered ecosystem.
The Hrazdan river flowing out of the mountainous lake has for decades supplied irrigation water to the fruit-growing Ararat Valley through a network of canals mostly built in Soviet times. This was a key reason for a drastic shrinkage of Armenia’s main water reservoir that had begun in the 1950s.
The lake’s level has soared by at least three meters over the past decade thanks two underground tunnels pumping water from mountain rivers. The government’s decision to cut back on the use of Sevan’s water for power generation and irrigation has also been a major factor. An Armenian law on Sevan limits the annual volume of that water at 170 million cubic meters.
The government approved on Thursday a package of draft amendments to the law which would raise that ceiling to 320 million cubic meters. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said this is needed for offsetting a significant drop in summer precipitation predicted by the State Committee on Water Resources.
“If we want to ensure normal supplies of irrigation water to the Ararat Valley we will have to receive the National Assembly’s permission and take an additional 150 million cubic meters of water from Lake Sevan to avoid problems in agriculture,” Sarkisian told a weekly cabinet meeting.
Environmental activists and experts dismissed that explanation. Hakob Sanasarian of the Union of Greens, a non-governmental organization, claimed that the government simply wants to save villas, resorts and other expensive properties built along the Sevan coastline from being submerged by the rising water level.
“There is politics behind the decision,” Sanasarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “They could have waited until August or at least the end of July to see if the amount of precipitation has drastically decreased before making the decision.”
“A drought is not anticipated,” insisted Aram Gabrielian, an expert on climate change coordinating a United Nations project in Armenia. “They say that [artificial] water reservoirs are now half full. But they must always be half full.”
Some villagers in the Ararat Valley were likewise skeptical that the government initiative is designed to support them. “They let out water not for the villagers,” said one farmer in the village of Dashtavan. “They just don’t want their cottages to be flooded. They are also doing that to sell more electricity.”
“Even if you pump one billion cubic meters of water from Sevan there will be no water here without the construction of a dam,” another villager told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Gabrielian stressed that Sevan’s continued enlargement is essential for Armenia. The picturesque lake has a total area of almost 1,000 square kilometers.
Under the government’s long-term rehabilitation program for Sevan, the level is to rise by another 3.5 meters by 2029. It envisages that further growth will be less drastic and average roughly 20 centimeters per annum. Sarkisian and other officials did not specify whether the heavier use of the lake’s waters would affect these targets.