Villages in the Ararat Valley are Being Deprived of Water
Half the village of Hayanist, in Ararat Province of Armenia, already is without drinking water. Only eight of the community’s 528 hectares of arable land is irrigated. Elders assembled in the village square quickly point to their primary issue – water for drinking and irrigation.
“We used to use water from an artesian well. Now that the levels have dropped, we have a problem,” says Hayanist Deputy Mayor Artour Babadjanyan. The cause is the newly drilled artesian wells and their depth. Previously artesian wells were drilled at a depth of 60-70 meters. New wells are now being sunk at double the depth. “Ordinary villagers don’t dig artesian wells. They don’t have the means and permission is hard to come by,” notes Babadjanyan. There are some twenty artesian wells in Hayanist. There are wells in the four fish hatcheries operating on village lands.
Underground sweet-tasting water, also called artesian water, is taken out via bore holes. This solves the drinking and irrigation water problem. In Ararat and Armavir Provinces, the danger that these waters are being exhausted has surfaced. The constantly gushing wells in the fish hatcheries have endangered the Ararat plains with desertification. The bore holes go down quite deep and the earth isn’t able to replenish the water reserves.
200 of the 1040 resident families in the neighboring village of Hovtashat have gone without drinking and irrigation water for the past two years. Here too they get their potable and irrigation water from the artesian wells. There are 960 hectares of agriculture use land in Hovtashat, of which 400 isn’t irrigated. During the past few years the pressure of the artesian well water has dropped and the springs have dried up.
There are 32 fish hatcheries in Hovtashat alone. “The fish hatcheries aren’t the only factor leading to the drying up of our wells. Our village lies at a high elevation. If they sink a well 5-10 kilometers distant, the water will stop flowing,” says Hovtashat Mayor Simon Andreasyan. Due to the lack of water, villagers have stopped farming their leased plots of land. Nearly 100 hectares of leased land is no longer farmed.
The mayor says they provided documents to the government describing their plight. If the government doesn’t take practical measures in the next one to two years, villagers will also abandon the remaining 400 hectares.
Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgyan (also the Minister of Territorial Administration) set up an inter-departmental working group. He met with water consumers, fish hatchery operators and community representatives. They discussed the illegal drilling of deep wells and the situation arising from violating accepted usage norms.
Furthermore, Armen Gevorgyan is well aware that the hatcheries are violating the legal water usage norms, which has made supplying potable and irrigation water to many communities all the more difficult.
Fish hatcheries were urged to operate within the accepted water usage norms. In April, water consumers, in particular the hatchery owners, were provided adequate time in which to bring their water usage from deep wells back in line with legal standards. To date, these efforts have not resulted in any positive change.
Minister of Nature Protection Aram Haroutyunyan told Hetq that some 2,000 illegal wells exist. “This didn’t happen overnight. It’s a problem spanning fifty or twenty years, because studies haven’t been conducted for 25 years. Thus, I believe that an inventory must be made so that the number of illegal wells doesn’t increase,” said Haroutyunyan. When asked how long it will take the working group to complete its investigations, the minister responded, “For as long as it takes.”
Starting in the spring of this year, the water usage permit process has been halted. The issue of providing well permits has been taken up by the working group.
Meanwhile, water usage permits have become harder to get for the medium sized fish hatcheries. But in the past year, very large-scale hatchery operations have been launched by National Assembly MPs and high level officials.
MP Samvel Aleksanyan: A Small Operation’s Large Fish Ponds
The fish farm belonging to National Assembly MP Samvel Aleksanyan is located on 11.5 hectares in the Ararat Province village of Sis. The farm’s technology expert, Movses Arakelyan, said the operation is a medium-sized one. “It’s neither small nor large. We have many catch ponds because we use water wisely,” he told Hetq.
Arakelyan said the farm’s wells aren’t that new, or old. The farm has operated for a year now but the land was purchased seven years ago. The wells were dug around the same time.
Aleksanyan periodically visits the fish farm. “Perhaps you don’t know Mr. Aleksanyan all too well. When he introduced sturgeon we studied all the latest technology. We wanted to see how the fish thrived. Once the issues were ironed out, his visits were less frequent,” said Arakelyan.
The fish that are grown here aren’t exported. All of them are supplied to the Yerevan City chain of supermarkets owned by Aleksanyan. Given that it’s a new operation, all the stores can’t be adequately supplied. Ishkhan (a type of cold water trout indigenous to Lake Sevan) is the prime fish species raised. If the supermarket chain expands, so will the fish farm. The chain has been adding new stores yearly.
There are some seventy hatchery ponds in Aleksanyan’s fish farm and seven or eight wells according to Arakelyan. “There are wells that produce 300-400 liters of water per second, others only 70-80. The supply isn’t based on the number of wells but on their depth. There can be ten wells that together only produce the water of one,” said Arakelyan.
Arakelyan skirted the issue as to the overall water consumption of the farm. “I won’t say. It’s not because the amount is large, but because I am telling you things that are more important.”
When we visited a few fish farms it became apparent which ones were operating according to the law and which ones were concealing something. Those operators with the proper licenses didn’t avoid giving information regarding the number of water wells and fish. The owners of larger farms and their managers balked when asked such questions.
It is clear that some farms have no permits for the wells now in use.
The immeasurable water at the Tsarukyan-Abrahamyan “family” operation
In the village of Sayat Nova, but removed from the residential area and the main road, a fish farm operates a huge tract of fenced in land. It is jointly owned by National Assembly MP Gagik Tsarukyan and National Assembly President Hovik Abrahamyan. By the way, the two men are in-laws.
When we asked workers at the farm which tracts belong to which of the above mentioned individuals, the response was that the operation is run as a single entity. Large Armenian mastiffs patrol the grounds.
When we visited the fish farm the manager wasn’t present. Workers didn’t want to tell us anything.
When we asked how many water wells there were, the answer of one worker was vague. “There are many or there aren’t any. It’s not important.” He then told us the number of fish and wells was a company secret.
We also couldn’t get a straight answer regarding the size of the fish farm. “It takes a day to walk from one end of the place to the other,” jokingly said one of the workers.
“Don’t expect concise numbers. It’s a big place,” said a worker named Tigran. “Why are you interested in the wells? They are building a fish farm in Armenia. It’s great. We are raising fish so that people can eat cheaply.”
“How cheap?” we asked. “Around 2,000 AMD for villagers. It used to cost 3,000. We are producing for the domestic market.”
National Assembly President Abrahamyan denied the claim that he was in the fish farming business with his in-law Tsarukyan. “I’m not in the business. Maybe Tsarukyan is, but I don’t know.”
When we noted that local residents and the workers told us that the operation was owned by himself and Tsarukyan, Abrahamyan responded, “Yes, there was a Hovik involved but I’m not that Hovik. Go back and get the facts. I don’t hide what I own.”
Hovik Abrahamyan added that fish farming was a good business to be in.
According to the National Statistical Service, fish farming in Armenia has a profit margin of 33%.
Our information concludes that there are some twenty large basins in the area and three giant wells. The pipes carrying the water to the basins are large diameter ones. This implies that huge quantities of underground water are being consumed.
A police official at the Anti-Crime Division also delves into fish-farming
One of the larger fish farms in Armenia is owned by Gagik Badalyan, Chief of the Carjacking Unit of Anti-Crime Division of the RA Police.
He has familial ties with Gevorg Martirosyan, the former mayor of Hayanist. When Martirosyan built his fish farm in Hayanist, he also looked out for his relation Badalyan.
Badalyan’s fish farm has been operating for four years. It has two wells pumping out 120-130 liters of water per second.
There are some 30,000 fish in the reservoir. When we asked Armen Gevorgyan, who manages the operation, if the business was profitable openly answered, “Of course.”
Gevorgyan roughly calculates that one kilo of feed, which costs 8,000 AMD, is all that’s needed to grow a fish to one kilo in a year. That fish can then be sold at 1,800 AMD. That’s a 1,000 AMD profit.
The Rule of Law Party representative concerned with the welfare of the people and reporters
The fish farm belonging to Mher Hambardzoumyan, a resident of Dashtavan twice nominated for the National Assembly, has yet to complete one year of operation. Hambardzoumyan is the representative of the Rule of Law Party (Orinats Yerkir) in the Masis region and in some Artashat villages,
His operation has two wells. Since there is little water, he also uses a nearby well. Hambardzoumyan obtained permits for the wells three years ago. The water permits expire this January. Hambardzoumyan knew about the problem of decreasing artesian water.
“The situation of the people is terrible. The artesian wells have dried up. There is no water,” he says. “We decided to bring in equipment from Leningrad in the range of $35,000 to $40,000. If there is 200 liters of water flowing per second, this equipment increases the oxygen level by three times. We respect the people and don’t want to cause undue harm,” says Hambardzoumyan, adding that his operation is a small one.
“Don’t you get the sense that this is a small operation? Haven’t you seen any of the big ones?” he asks, referring to the Tsarukyan-Abrahamyan fish farm.
As we were about to leave, Hambardzoumyan attempted to slip some money into the pocket of Grisha Balasanyan, one of the reporters. When we asked what he was doing, Hambardzoumyan said, “Well, it’s your first visit. Just think of it as gasoline money.” When we told him that Hetq covered our travelling expenses, Hambardzoumyan offered us some fish. We refused the fish. Walking towards our car, Hambardzoumyan told us not to hesitate if he could be of any assistance to us at all.
Fish farm belonging to brother of Rule of Law Party enjoys “immunity”
The fish farm belonging to Artyom Baghdasaryan, brother of Rule of Law MP Gagik Baghdasaryan, is tucked away at the far end of Gai village in Ararat Province. A brick wall encircles the entire area.
Entry is forbidden. The guard only allowed us a brief glimpse inside. We saw the fish ponds, the garden and their luxurious house. We’ve been told that the ponds take up two hectares of space. Artyom Baghdasaryan uses 3-4 artesian wells.
Fish Farmers Union President is also a huge water consumer
Nearby is the fish farm belonging to Arkady Gevorgyan, President of the Fish Farmers Union if Armenia. Gevorgyan’s AquaTech Avtomatika owns 7-8 fish farms in the Ararat valley. They consume huge amounts of water from seven or eight wells.
The RA government allocated 200 million AMD to the company under the Small and Medium Sized Business Anti-Crisis loan program. The company is now exporting its product.
We spotted 18 pounds and three wells on site. Artour Chobanyan, who runs the place, told us that 80,000 Ishkhan fish are being raised.
“At one time water was more abundant. As the water decreased so did the number of fish we raise,” he said.
Former Cadastre Chief also into fish-farming
On the road to the village of Sayat Nova, before reaching the Tsarukyan-Abrahamyan business, the fish hatchery ponds of Samvel Haroutyunyan, former chief of the Property Registry (Cadastre) in Masis, occupy a huge area.
Water usage is cheaper than water removal
99% of the fish farms operating on artesian water are to be found in the Ararat valley; in the provinces of Ararat and Armavir. It is the Ministry of Nature Protection which grants water usage permits. If the corresponding commission find in favor of a petition, the minister signs off on it.
One must pay a state fee for the processing of a permit request – 1,000 for individuals and 10,000 for companies. Owners of some fish farms say that permits for the use of artesian water are an expensive luxury and that obtaining permission is also dependent on contacts with officials at the top. The average price for a permit is $15,000. To this must be added the cost of drilling a well; around $15,000.
Minister A. Haroutyunyan says he doesn’t know why well permits are so expensive. “If you have information on this, go to the proper bodies. If I come across similar info, I will go. It’s an absurdity.”
Between 2005 and 2010, the Ministry of Nature Protection granted 494 water usage permits (this number includes extensions of three year permits), of which 234 were for fish farms.
From 2009 to 2010, the ministry granted 25 new permits for artesian wells; five in this year alone. According to the maximum water usage limits as set down in the permits, these fish farms have consumed 672.4 million cubic meters of water in the past five years.
We should also note that according to Haroutyun Haroutyunyan, Deputy Chief of Planning and Management Division of the Water Resources Management Agency (WRMA), fish operations in the Ararat valley consume about 800 million cubic meters of water in one year. In years past, that figure was 500-600 million.
Grisha Mouradyan, who heads the Permit Division at the WRMA, says that water usage is regulated by law. Water for irrigation is free, while that used to operate fish farms costs .05 AMD per one cubic meter.
Water removal is regulated another way. It’s a more expensive procedure and depends on what materials are in the waste water and their quantity. “Usually, fish farm water isn’t regarded as polluted and can be used for irrigation,” says Mouradyan.
When we visited Ararat and Armavir, we noticed many puddles in the villages where fish farms exist. The puddles were from runoff from the farms. Lands at lower elevations can use the water as irrigation but the water is less beneficial and contains decreased amounts of oxygen.
Part of the water is lost altogether because some of the farms are at lower elevations than the fields. Water flowing out of the fish farms is 15% less than original inflow. The outflow usually spills into the Sev Djour and Hrazdan Rivers.
When asked if the fish farms cause ecological damage to the Ararat Valley and deplete local water reserves, Grisha Mouradyan said, “In certain places a decreasing water supply trend has been observed. But I believe long-term studies must be completed to answer that question with any degree of certainty.”
When asked why the Ministry if Nature Protection hasn’t yet launched such studies, Mouradyan responded that it’ an expensive and time consuming proposition. That’s why the matter has been taken up by the government.
According to commission study results for March-April, there were 234 fish farms in the Ararat Valley – 87 in Ararat Province and 147 in Armavir Province.
Wells with relatively greater leakage are in Ararat Province and the area of Gai-Haykashen, since the artesian water caverns are located there.
Haroutyun Haroutyunyan, Deputy Chief of Planning and Management Division of the Water Resources Management Agency (WRMA), says that no one for sure how much water is being lost. “Now, in the Ararat Valley, we have a relative decrease in leakage.
He says that the working group headed by the deputy prime minister is reviewing the matter of installing water meters at the fish farms. H. Haroutyunyan links the displeasure of the operators to the high cost of the meters. “If the government installs them that would be fine, if not…They could install them and give operators pay the cost gradually, over time.”
The procedure for installing the meters has been finalized. Besides this, there still can be proposals about installing a metering system that would be less expensive than a meter. The water used would be calculated based on the water surface and the flow velocity.
Artour Gevorgyan, Deputy Chief of the State Environmental Inspectorate, says that inspections were last carried out in 2008. He claims that the number of illegal wells hasn’t increased in the past five years due to diligent monitoring.
“Illegal wells started in the 1990s. There are large numbers of wells in communities with no permit papers. We haven’t registered an undocumented well in the past year,” he says.
Nevertheless, 64 illegal water consumers were uncovered and fined in 2010, of which 18 were fish farmers. Artour Gevorgyan notes that fish farms are given 100-120 liters of water per second. Readers will be reminded that a well at Samvel Aleksanyan’s hatchery was flowing at a rate of 300 liters per second.
Grisha Mouradyan said that on some of the larger operations, like Arkady Gevorgyan’s (President of the Fish Farmers Union if Armenia) AquaTech Avtomatika, there are 8-10 wells.
There are 525 wells in the Ararat Valley scheduled for closing. H. Haroutyunyan from the WRMA says finances must be allocated for this objective, which will have a major significance for the preservation of water resources.
According to 2009 inventory data, there were 5,424 artesian wells in Armenia – 3,165 in the Ararat Valley (1,900 in Armavir and 1,200 in Ararat)
The disappointment of the Deputy PM and the jubilation of the PM
At an advisory session that took place in the office of Deputy PM Armen Gevorgyan on September 10, 2010, a decision was reached to halt the granting of new artesian well permits until the completion of hydro-geological research; i.e., until there was a definite evaluation of underground water reserves.
Khachik Gharabaghtsyan, Director of the Hydro-Geological Monitoring Center, says that the data now available is 25 years out of date. This year the government approved the allocation of 250 million AMD over the next three years to carry out a reappraisal.
On October 18 of this year, during an address at the National Assembly, RA Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan declared that Armenia had already exported 80 tons of fish.
PM Sargsyan pointed out that 2011 fish export figures would double or even triple, in comparison to 2010.
According to published data, fish production has increased by 40% in the past two years; rising from 3,800 tons in 2007 to 5,200 in 2009.
In essence, two contradictory actions are being implemented. While fish farming is being promoted, the granting of permits for artesian wells for this purpose is being tightened. Perhaps the prime minister doesn’t know what is being sacrificed in order to increase fish production and what environmental disaster awaits the Ararat Valley as a result.