Hundreds of residents of a big village in central Armenia again blocked a highway on Friday in continuing angry protests against government plans to divert water from a river serving as their main source of irrigation.
The government wants to build a canal there as part of a broader irrigation project that will be mainly financed by a $30 million loan allocated by the World Bank three years ago. It envisages a switch from pump-based to gravity irrigation in four agricultural regions of Armenia.
Announcing the release of the loan in May 2013, the World Bank said the project will allow the country to save both irrigation water and electricity used for pumping it to farming communities. “This will potentially bring about 2,400 hectares of formerly irrigated agricultural fields back to irrigation, leading to increased agricultural production,” it said in a statement.
Under the project, water from the Azat river flowing by Garni, a village 30 kilometers east of Yerevan, is to be delivered to 12 villages in the southern Ararat province through a gravity irrigation system.
Many Garni farmers have opposed that from the outset, saying that the river is already barely able to meet their needs for irrigation and drinking water and that the government would wreak havoc on local agriculture by diverting it. Armenian environment protection groups have backed their demands.
The critics also claim that it is Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, rather than the Ararat farmers, who would be the main beneficiary of the project. Abrahamian reportedly owns large swathes of agricultural land in that fruit-growing area south of Yerevan. Government officials have denied these allegations.
The protests in Garni, which has a population of more than 5,000 residents, intensified last month as authorities deployed heavy machinery in preparation for the construction work. The local farmers have since repeatedly blocked a highway that passes through the village and leads to two of Armenia’s most famous tourist attractions. One of them is the pagan Garni temple built in the 1st century A.D.
The angry protesters again kept the road closed for several hours on Friday. They refused to unblock it despite an appeal from the police chief of the Kotayk province encompassing Garni. The protesters gave the government until Sunday to scrap the controversial project.