In a world where freshwater resources are unevenly distributed and becoming increasingly scarce and as the demand keeps growing, it is expected that water will replace oil as the core commodity of the 21st century. In a number of countries water is already more expensive than oil. Armenia has sufficient water resources to supply approximately 3,100 cubic meters per capita per year, which is above the typically cited Falkenmark water stress indicator of 1,700 cubic meters per capita/year. So, it is the right time to rethink how we use water in Armenia.
Armenia’s renewable water resources is estimated to be about 7.5 billion cubic meters annually, about three billion of which is underground. The number, however, does not include the water resources of Lake Sevan, which is a natural reservoir as well as the transboundary Araks River, which is shared with Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. According to the acting head of the Water Resource Management Agency Edgar Pirumyan, in recent years the amount of Armenia’s water resources has, on average, decreased by five percent, primarily because of climate change and human activities. Some projections estimate that the loss will be up to eight percent by 2028.
Despite all the legislative and institutional reforms that have been initiated over the past decade, the water sector in Armenia still faces some serious challenges with respect to management and protection. “On average 50 percent of water allocated for irrigation is being lost because of the problems in the management system,” claimed Pirumyan. “The losses in the water resources allocated for household purposes amounts to about 80 percent.” The logical question that needs to be addressed here is how to develop a more efficient and sustainable water management strategy that meets the demands of Armenia’s population yet at the same time does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Pirumyan noted that the adoption of the Water Code of Armenia back in 2002 was a massive step forward compared to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He added that Armenia, both with its institutional and legislative frameworks in the water resource management sector is in a leading position among CIS countries. It is primarily because of Armenia’s commitment to the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach, which prioritizes decentralization of water basin management and has been accepted internationally as the way forward for efficient and sustainable management of the world's limited water resources.
The first Water Code of Armenia, adopted back in 1992, was developed in accordance with the approaches widely practiced during Soviet times and was based on a centralized water resource management approach. The acting legislation, (includes the Water Code, the law on National Water Policy, adopted in 2005, and the National Water Program adopted in 2006) however, introduced the idea of integrated river basin planning and the development of river basin management plans (RBMPs). The boundaries of basin management areas were defined in 2004, and currently, there are six divisions, which operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Nature Protection. The divisions are the following:
Northern / Akhuryan / Sevan / Hrazdan / Ararat / Southern
It is worth noting that these divisions were not created based on administrative principles, similar to the governance of Armenia’s regions, but rather based on the geography of water. Each water basin management division supervises the formation of a water resource from its source to basin and includes all the regions or parts of the regions through which the water flows. Hrazdan water basin management division, for example, manages the flow of the Hrazdan River from Lake Sevan, where it originates until it joins the Araks River.
This approach allows for reliable and timely data on water quantity and quality which are essential to a properly functioning water management and planning system. “An official sitting in Yerevan cannot know the conditions of a specific river at a given time and location, it has to be monitored and evaluated locally, based on the specific features of the resource,” explained Pirumyan. Considering that Armenia is in a mountainous region, and the majority of rivers originate in the mountains, the characteristics of water may vary considerably depending on its specific location. Usually in countries with lowland water resources, such as the Netherlands and Russia, variations from the source to an estuary are minimal.
Each river basin management division operates in accordance with an already established plan, which is adopted by the government. Despite the fact that the divisions were created in 2003, the first plan was designed only in 2016, since the development of those plans is quite a complicated procedure; describes the conditions of the entire water basin and sets its management agenda. So far, basin management plans have been completed for Northern, Akhuryan, and Ararat divisions. Pirumyan said that the Ministry is currently working on plans for the Hrazdan and Sevan divisions, which are expected to be finalized in 2020.
The divisions are tasked to determine the overall amount of available water resources in the basin and identify the amount that can be distributed based on demand and established priorities. The allocation of water resources is also implemented by considering the ecological flow, which is the volume of water that needs to be kept in the basin to sustain its ability to recover. The priorities, which are set by the law include sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, fulfillment of the demands for the national water reservoir for future generations, as well as water allocated for irrigation, industrial and hydropower purposes. Pirumyan noted that a significant portion of Armenia’s water resources is allocated for household consumption and irrigation. The volume allocated to specific industries, however, varies depending on the region. “If we take the Ararat Valley, fish farming and agriculture would be the two largest water consumers, while in the case of Syunik, it would be hydroelectricity,” added Pirumyan.
Sectors Posing Challenges for the Water Sector
This year with the initiative of the Ministry of Nature Protection, the Government adopted a decision on introducing water conservation and protection technologies, to minimize the water loss. The document identifies the main industries that pose challenges for the water sector such as agriculture, hydroelectric power stations and fish farming, and prioritizes the adoption of strategies for more efficient water consumption. While talking about possible solutions, Pirumyan explained that in the agricultural sector, surface irrigation, which is widely practiced among Armenian farmers, should be substituted with drip irrigation. Despite the fact that surface irrigation is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, over time runoff and surface water evaporation result in serious water losses. The magnitude of the loss is especially significant if tailwater is not controlled and reused.
Hydroelectric Power Stations (HPSs) are also among the largest water consumers. Since last year, there have been serious efforts to make sure that water flow meters are installed in all HPSs. “As of August of last year, 152 out of 188 acting small HPSs did not have flow meters,” said Pirumyan. “Currently, 93 of them have already installed flow meters and in the near future their water use can be monitored and tracked online.”
Over the past years, fish farms have negatively impacted the artesian groundwater resources of the Ararat Valley, which is considered Armenia’s bread basket and has a strategic importance for the country’s economy. Since 2006, a large number of fish farms have been established there primarily because of the availability of high quality water at a low cost. By 2008, fish production was included in the list of priority development programs and over the next few years more water use permits (which are an important tool for management and allocation of water resources in the country) were issued to owners of fish farms exceeding the renewable level of groundwater resources. From 2010-2011, the number of fish farms in the Ararat Valley alone was 211. Pirumyan said that currently the number is 144, and most of the fish farms were closed because of the scarcity of water resources.
The consequences were especially devastating for nearby communities which were supplied with the artesian groundwaters for household or irrigation purposes. The number of those communities decreased from 44 in 1983 to 13 in 2013. Pirumyan added that following the overissuance of water user permits an area of about 32,000 square meters, which was covered by artesian groundwater resources in 1983, decreased to approximately 10,500 square meters in 2013. “In Armavir region, which was affected the most, the depth that was required to drill to reach the artesian water almost doubled,” he added.
Towards More Sustainable Water Management Strategy
Pirumyan believes that stricter regulations need to be imposed on fish farms of the Ararat Valley, which over the years depleted artesian groundwaters by using primary resources, which later flowed out of Armenia through the Araks River. It is important to note that currently, water allocated to fish farms, is supervised by the National Water Council, which is chaired by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. “It is expected that fish farms will transfer to semi-closed systems which can decrease water usage by 60 percent, or alternatively the water will be used for irrigation purposes,” Pirumyan explained. As a result, the water cycle would not be disturbed and valuable water resources would not be wasted.
But before further legislative changes are undertaken, Pirumyan stressed that it is important to normalize the work of fish farms, and the measurement of management effectiveness should be the volume of fish produced per unit of flowing water. He added that in an efficiently managed fish farm, the production rate is about 700 kg of production per liter of water flow per second. The practice in the Ararat Valley, however, was that three times as much water was used for the production for the same amount of fish. Pirumyan hopes that with this normalization, the use of water resources in fish farms will substantially decrease. Previously, there have been cases when overexploitation was registered, and a fish farm which was allowed to use 100 liter of water per second, in fact had been using more. So, stricter monitoring and supervision efforts are required.
Eco-education among young people should also be part of the reform strategy, as it would serve as an opportunity for students to become aware of and actively engaged in environmental issues impacting their life. “They need to understand that without responsible usage of natural resources, their future will be endangered,” said Pirumyan. “The process has already started but a more consistent approach is still required.”