Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian called a halt to the controversial construction of a new irrigation canal in Armenia over the weekend amid continuing protests by farmers fiercely opposed to it.
The Armenian government planned to divert water from a river that has long served as the main source of irrigation for farmers in Garni, a big village in the central Kotayk province. The water was supposed to be delivered to 12 villages in the southern Ararat province as part of a $37 million irrigation project.
The project mainly financed by a World Bank loan calls for a switch from pump-based to gravity irrigation in four agricultural regions of Armenia. Many Garni residents have opposed it from the outset, saying that the local river is already barely able to meet their needs for irrigation and drinking water. The villagers again blocked a highway passing through Garni on Friday in protest against the unfolding construction.
Abrahamian and senior government officials were greeted with whistles and “Cancel!” chants as they visited the site of the protest on Saturday. “We are going to stop the construction and remove the construction equipment,” the prime minister told the protesters at the end of a tense 40-minute conversation with them.
Tension eased dramatically after the announcement, with one of the villagers inviting Abrahamian into his house and serving homemade yogurt to the high-ranking guest. The incredulous protesters reopened the highway to traffic only an hour later, after another appeal from Abrahamian.
“I’ve been here for two hours,” an irritated Abrahamian told them. “Why aren’t you unblocking the road?”
“If a prime minister promises something and doesn’t deliver, he has no right to be prime minister,” he said, insisting that the government will not go ahead with the Garni project.