Vol. 4, No. 19 (October 01, 2011)

Water as a foreign policy challenge for Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Azerbaijan does not face the kind of potable water crisis that confronts many of the countries of Central Asia, but each of the three water problems it does have to deal with have a foreign policy dimension.  First, there is the problem of pollution in rivers that rise in Armenia, Georgia and other neighboring countries and then flow into Azerbaijan.  Second, there is the challenge of agreeing on how to share the water of rivers flowing along its borders with states on the other side.  And third, there is the difficulty of coping with decisions of other states that have led to the drying up on their territories of lakes whose demise will not only affect the population of those countries, but that of Azerbaijan as well.  Each of these problems is intensifying and has been the subject of increased attention in Baku during the past month.

Upstream pollution flowing into Azerbaijan has long attracted Azerbaijani attention, in no small part because a large proportion of this problem is being created largely but not exclusively by Armenia whose forces occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory.  Indeed, Armenian contamination of rivers that flow into or through Azerbaijani territory is now being called by some Azerbaijanis “an ecological threat” to the future of their country and of the region as a whole.

London’s Institute of War and Peace Reporting recently released a study on the ways in which pollution in Armenia is driving Armenians off the land and out of the country, but that report did not focus on the ways in which these problems are now casting a shadow over Azerbaijan.  Matanat Avazova, the deputy director of the national environmental monitoring department of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, has filled that gap.  In a comment to Baku’s Ekho newspaper, Avazova said that Armenia’s Razdan River, into which much of the pollution goes, “connects with the Araz River, “which then descends into the territory of Azerbaijan, and as a rule, all the effluents of the enterprises in Yerevan and other major districts of Armenia flow into the river.” [1] 

“We are not in a position to say what the share of Armenia and Georgia is in the contamination of the Kura and Araz rivers,” Avazova said.  “We can only offer information on the basis of monitoring which we conduct at the border.  And according to this monitoring, the Kura and Araz are being contaminated from Armenia, Georgia and Iran, and all this eventually passes into the Caspian Sea.”  She noted that Azerbaijan is monitoring the water at the border with Georgia, where contamination is quite high.  But as it passes through the territory of Azerbaijan, the Kura at least “cleanses itself.”  This process, Avazova continued, reflects the absence of “any sources of pollution” inside Azerbaijan along this portion of the river.

Unfortunately, as soon as the Kura joins the Araz in the Saatly District, pollution goes way up, approximately to the level at which “it is at the border with Georgia,” the result of Armenian contamination of its flow upstream.  And even more unfortunately, Avazova notes, Azerbaijan “now has no mechanisms” to affect the way Armenia uses its upstream flows or the way it contaminates these trans-national rivers.  “That is possible only at an international level, but [the Armenians] up to now have not joined the convention on the preservation and use of trans-border water flows and international lakes.  They understand that if they acceded to this convention, they would have to take on themselves definite obligations.”

Azerbaijan, the ecology ministry official argued, is trying to cope with this situation by setting up water purification facilities, “the number of which now exceeds 200” and which serve “more than 500,000 citizens of Azerbaijan,” an enormous task that will only increase if pollution levels continue to rise.

Telman Zeynalov, the president of Azerbaijan’s National Center of Ecological Forecasting, added that “while it is difficult to say exactly how polluted rivers in Armenia now are,” one can assert that “all the discharge of enterprises, combines, and organizations go into the rivers, which pass through the territory of Armenia” and then “pass into the territory of Azerbaijan.  And residents of Azerbaijan who live on the shores of the Araz drink this water,” sometimes processed but sometimes not.  He noted that Armenian pollution of the rivers is having an impact on Iran which is located on the other bank of the Araz from Azerbaijan. [2] 

The second of Azerbaijan’s water problems concerns the sharing of the flow of the two rivers, which form most of its northern and southern borders, the Samur and the Araz respectively.  In the past, Azerbaijan largely controlled the use of water from the Samur, but as part of the bilateral agreement with the Russian Federation, ratified earlier this summer, the two countries agreed to deal with this issue jointly.  That has ended most of the problems there.  Indeed, as the Russian ambassador to Baku points out in the interview published in this issue of Azerbaijan in the World, that represents a major triumph for the diplomacy of the two countries.

However, that does not mean that all the problems have disappeared.  On the one hand, there is the question of bridges linking the two sides of the watershed together.  And on the other, there is the question of managing the flow both during droughts and flood times so that farmers and industry in each country get what they need without harming those in the neighboring country.  The experience of recent months has shown that the two governments are quite prepared to work together, most recently on a decision to build a new bridge. [3]

The situation along Azerbaijan’s other riparian border is more difficult, because the flow of the Araz affects far larger populations on both sides.  That river provides much of the drinking water for Nakhchivan, the non-contiguous autonomous republic, and for the southern portions of Azerbaijan, on the one hand, and for much of northwestern Iran, a region that is populated predominantly by ethnic Azerbaijanis and thus of particular concern to Baku.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran cooperated on managing the flow of this river to the point of building a reservoir to better manage water use, but more recently, in part because of problems within Iran and with its Azerbaijani minority and in part because of a decline in the size of the flow of the river itself, dealing with these problems has become more difficult.  Azerbaijani and Iranian officials have met frequently to discuss the river, but as yet there is no agreement of the kind that appears to have resolved the problems along the Samur in the north.

This situation is further complicated by the most prominent example of the third kind of foreign policy water problem that Azerbaijan faces.  Because of drought brought on by global warming, the water level of Lake Urmia has fallen by more than six meters in recent years, reducing the amount of potable water available to the ethnic Azerbaijanis of northwestern Iran and raising the specter that wind-carried rare earth minerals from the former lake bed will have serious consequences not only for Iran’s population, but for Azerbaijan’s as well.

At its session on September 30, the Azerbaijani parliament appealed to members of its Iranian counterpart to do something to save Lake Urmia on whose waters, the Milli Majlis deputies said, the future of “millions of people” now depend. [4] One deputy, Ganira Pashayeva pointed out that the falling water levels of that lake “have an influence not only on this territory but also on surround regions” including those in Azerbaijan itself.  And she noted that the Iranian authorities, instead of responding this need, were “repressing” the Azerbaijanis in Iran who were protesting about the demise of Lake Urmia.

Another deputy, Fazail Aghamaly, added that the decline in the water level of Lake Urmia “after two or three years” will mean that Azerbaijan itself will begin to drown in dust, with this tragedy hitting Nakhchivan first.  Indeed, the lake is now nearly twice as saline as it was only a few years ago, a trend that makes water processing both more necessary and more expensive.  He called on the Milli Majlis to formally ask the Iranian parliament to do something and suggested that “if necessary, Azerbaijan could extend the hand of help to Iran” to save Lake Urmia.

Yet another Azerbaijani parliamentarian suggested some of the ways that this water problem in Iran could become something more politically significant.  Siyavush Novruzov said that the 30 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran could put pressure on Tehran.  “At a minimum,” he said, “they could block the road to cars and trucks going to Nagorno-Karabakh from the Iranian province of Western Azerbaijan.”  


[1] See http://news.day.az/society/288810.html (accessed 28 September 2011).

[2] See http://news.day.az/society/288810.html (accessed 28 September 2011).

[3] See http://news.day.az/politics/290680.html (accessed 30 September 2011).

[4] See http://news.day.az/politics/291027.html (accessed 30 September 2011).