Armenians Fear for Their River

By Anush Sarkisian

VANADZOR, Armenia, January 14, 2005 (ENS) - On rainy days the waters of the river flowing through the town of Vanadzor are a jumble of murk and dirt. Even when the sun is shines, the river looks dirty and its foamy waters throw plastic bottles and other objects onto the bank.

The River Debed, one of Armenia’s longest rivers, runs through northern Armenia into Georgia. Three of its tributaries flow through Vanadzor, the third largest city in the country and one of its main industrial centers. And many locals are worried that the pollution of the Debed is threatening the future of their region.

"Seventy five percent of Armenia’s water resources flow out of the country," Vartan Malakian, an environmental expert with the government of the surrounding Lori region. "What’s happening to this river is a catastrophe. The Debed is a mirror of the region and its economy, and shows how much the people of Lori care about standards of industry and everyday health."

Malakian is also a member of the newly formed Public Committee for the Debed River Basin, which is seeking to highlight the problems of the river. Everything in the region revolves around the river he says, pointing out, "The Debed has been the principal source of life for the region for decades, providing water supply, irrigation, fish and drinking water."


The River Debed flows past the city of Tumanian, Armenia. (Photo by Michael Arakelyan courtesy Virtual Armenia)
Edik Ovsepian, the regional government press spokesman, warned that the poor state of the river is hindering economic growth and construction projects and discouraging tourism. He pointed out that this is not a new problem but a legacy of Soviet heavy industry.

Yet Garnik Tumanian, 47, a construction worker from Vanadzor, said things have been getting worse, not better. "I grew up in the village of Dsekh on the Debed," he said. "All my childhood memories are associated with fishing, picking blackberries and Cornel cherries in the woods by the river. But in recent years, whenever I take my family to the country, I wouldn’t let the kids go near the water.

"There is all sorts of pollution in it. Locals have always dumped their rubbish [there], but recently a lot of new recreation spots and restaurants have been built on the banks. Sometimes restaurateurs build their toilets right on the river."

Pollution from a number of factories is already having deleterious health effects, says Karine Mirzoyan, head of the local hygiene and epidemiology inspectorate. People who bathed in the rivers in summer were suffering ill effects and in Alaverdi the ACP factory was emitting dangerous levels of sulphur into the atmosphere, much of which ended up in the river.

"This of course can be stimulate diseases of the respiratory tracts," said Mirzoyan. "To some extent this is why Alaverdi has the highest rate of TB in the Lori region."

A number of environmental organizations have been raising the alarm. Two years ago, shoals of dead fish were spotted at the point where the rivers Dzoraget and Pambak merge. There was no official explanation, but environmentalists concluded that the fish had perished as a result of the Vanadzor-based Prometei Khimprom chemicals factory dumping raw waste into the river.

Prometei Khimprom was one of Armenia’s largest industrial complexes in Soviet times and a prime polluter in the region, and its ownership has changed hands many times since then.


The River Debed flows through the city of Vanadzor, Armenia. (Photo courtesy Joint River Management Programme on Monitoring and Assessment of Water Quality on Transboundary Rivers)
"What actually happened was that the most recent owner, a Moscow based businessman named Senik Gevorgian, tried to start ammonia production at the factory," explained Artur Sakunts, a chemist and chairman of the Vanadzor Helsinki Assembly human rights group. "Due to lack of controls, the factory produced more ammonium than it could safely store, while emitting poisonous gasses and dumping raw chemicals in the river."

Sakunts also said no privatization agreements have ever mentioned the pollution issue, so no one can be held responsible.

An employee of the factory who declined to be named denied that the factory had dumped ammonium, while government spokesman Ovsepian said he hoped the new owners of the factory would help finance the cleanup of the river.

Rafik Kazinian, head of the Alaverdi Green Union and former parliament deputy, is sceptical about these promises. He himself has personal experience of the state of the Debed.

About 10 years ago, Kazinian arranged for 15 truckloads of minnows to be released into the Debed. "We had hope to revitalise the fish population in seven to eight years, but instead the fish had all been killed by poisonous emissions," he said. "No fish can live in a river that has been turned into a sewer."

So far there has been only one initiative aimed at cleaning up the river, a short-lived program administered by the U.S. company Development Alternatives Inc. or DAI. The program resulted in the formation of the public council that now has the right to inspect industrial facilities.

Local experts say the scale of the problem is much wider. "Can you imagine a whole city without rubbish bins," said Suren Eritsian, managing director of Blagoustroistvo Alaverdi, the local waste disposal company. "Where were the locals supposed to dispose of their rubbish? The river, of course. The problem is now being solved. A designated municipal dumping site has been assigned eight kilometers from Alaverdi, where the garbage is buried in the ground."

But Eritsian said the city needs millions of dollars in investment before its problems are solved, "We need new waste treatment facilities on the river; we need to replace our decrepit sewers, rebuild the water supply system, and set up waste disposal facilities in the villages. Major polluters, such as industrial enterprises, must build their own environmental systems. No one has been held responsible for what is going on."

As the solutions for these manifold problems all depend on money, hopes are now being pinned on the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge program. The Armenian government is hoping to receive up to $US900 million from the initiative, much of which would be channelled into water and environmental projects.

{Anush Sarkisian is deputy editor of the "Loru Marz" newspaper in Vanadzor. This article is published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}