From Sarsang to Stepanakert: the hydropolitics of Nagorno-Karabakh6 min read
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the brutal 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region (known in Armenia as Artsakh), many have reflected on the conflict through the lens of military security, economic viability and national sentiment. Yet, one issue has not received as much attention: water security. With the news of droughts hitting Stepanakert and Baku ramping up the construction of new dams, transboundary water issues prove a continued source of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, cooperation over this vital resource could prove key to a future amelioration of relations between the two states.
Azerbaijan may be rich in hydrocarbons, but it suffers from large-scale and persistent water scarcity. Over recent years, the country has felt the impacts of shrinking water sources in the Kura-Araks River Basin due to a culmination of excessive agriculture, unfavourable climatic conditions, pollution and transboundary mismanagement. Worse still, last summer saw these factors exacerbated, resulting in a water crisis for Azerbaijan. Given that Azerbaijan sourced roughly 70 percent of its drinking waters from these rivers, the whole country felt the depletion. While the rural population encountered the worst effects of this shortage, reports also stated that water was only available for two to three hours each night in Baku. By contrast, Nagorno-Karabakh is a relatively water-rich region. Given this, it is not hard to envisage its strategic role in stabilising Azerbaijan’s water security issues.
While it is difficult to ascertain the influence of this water shortage in the instigation of last year’s military action, water has undoubtedly become a deeply politicised issue. The most pertinent example of this is the Sarsang Reservoir, located in the Upper Karabakh region, which controls water flow for much of the lower areas of Karabakh. Most notably, the Azeri government had previously raised claims of “eco-terrorism” against Armenia for what it deemed intentional mismanagement of the Sarsang reservoir. As a result, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a report condemning Armenian officials for deliberately depriving Azerbaijan water. However, Armenian officials contested this report, pointing to a possible lack of objectivity from PACE and further accusing Azerbaijan of failing to cooperate over a key canal junction on the Tartar River.
The situation as it stands
So where are we now, following last year’s military action? The answer is twofold: on the one hand, the situation is starkly different, and on the other hand, it has hardly changed at all. It goes without saying that some massive changes took place in Nagorno-Karabakh as a result of the war. Along with making significant territorial gains, Azerbaijan now has access to an abundance of fresh-water resources, including the Sugovushan reservoir that allows partial control of the Sarsang reservoir’s waters. Not only has this had a positive outcome for the Azeri population in terms of general water supply, but it has also opened up a whole new array of energy alternatives — 30 of the region’s 36 hydroelectric power plants are now under Azeri control. It is also evident that water security is a priority for the government. Only three months after the ceasefire agreement, President Ilham Aliyev formally opened a hydropower plant in the Lachin district of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s Deputy Ecology and Natural Resources Minister, Rauf Jajiyev, recently announced that a further 13 hydropower plants will be built in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories by late 2021.
Where Azerbaijan has made gains, the territories under Armenian control are, in turn, under increasing pressure. With only six hydroelectric power plants within the territory remaining under Armenian control, production capacity has decreased from a reported 191 megawatts to 79 megawatts. This loss has contributed to frequent power outages across Nagorno-Karabakh throughout September. Similarly, water shortages have plagued the region’s capital, Stepanakert. In a regrettable turn of events, the usually water-rich Nagorno-Karabakh region is now experiencing the challenging realities of water scarcity. Over August 2021, it was reported that roughly forty percent of Stepanakert had no access to drinking water due to a combination of factors, including a summer heatwave and an influx in Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) following the war. What’s more, the city is still recovering from the infrastructural damage caused by last year’s military action; broken pipelines, faulty irrigation systems and damaged reservoirs all are causing insecurity within the region. However, these explanatory factors did not deter the rumours of Azeri interference, with various Armenian media sources claiming that Azerbaijan manufactured the water shortage. Although officials in Nagorno-Karabakh have denied these rumours, immense distrust continues to ripple throughout the Armenian population. Likewise, pro-Azeri media sources continue to accuse Armenia of “eco-terrorism”, this time for the pollution of transboundary and internal rivers.
From conflict to cooperation
So, is a bright future of water-related cooperation on the cards for these unhappy neighbours? At present, it is difficult to be optimistic about such a rapprochement. Recent events have demonstrated that the battle of water weaponisation is unlikely to cease any time soon. Water has become a pawn in the game of regional control and a key source of political leverage for both states. In this way, very little has changed. Yet, the benefits of reaching a cooperative approach to water security issues could greatly contribute to providing greater regional security. Both states seek to make gains by reaching fair and considered agreements over transboundary resources, as such putting an end to this zero-sum game of hydropolitics. And with climate change already showing its effects in the region, cooperation is now more urgent than ever.
Many — perhaps optimistically — have cited shared infrastructural projects such as the Middle Corridor international railway infrastructure initiative as a possible key to regional stability. Indeed, the potential geopolitical and economic gains from participating in such projects mean that they become a matter of strategic consideration for both states, despite their strained relations. Meanwhile, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia are reportedly close to signing a new agreement on the demarcation and delimitation of borders, as well as the opening of transport links. If these rumours prove to be true, it could hint towards stronger diplomatic relations between the two states. In this way, perhaps it is possible to tentatively hope for a future where policies based on transboundary water resources could also serve a pragmatic purpose to both ensure humanitarian security and foster stronger peace. But in order to reach a coordinated approach, the issue of water must be depoliticised and given deeper attention by international bodies. Otherwise, it is the ordinary people who will be living with ramifications of this political finger-pointing, with recurrent power cuts and water shortages becoming the new normal.