In Azerbaijan, residents pay a heavy price to have access to water

Image by Elisabeth Lies. Free to use under Unsplash License.

Three years ago, President Ilham Aliyev promised to address the country’s growing water shortage problem at a government meeting. The president said at the time, “From now on, drinking water and irrigation projects will be on our agenda as the most important issues. The main goal of today’s meeting is to eliminate the mistakes and existing shortcomings in this area in the coming years.” The same year, the president signed an action plan to ensure the effective use of water resources from 2020–2022. Fast forward to the present day, and the problem — exacerbated by excessive agriculture, a large number of reservoirs, droughts, pollution, and chronic mismanagement — is far from being resolved. The plight of residents in the Saatli district is just one of the recent examples attesting to the lack of sustainable solutions.

Since March 13, residents of at least three villages in Saatli have taken their demands for stable water access onto the streets. They were left with no choice after numerous attempts to reach officials and relevant state institutions. After residents blocked the streets, police used force and violence to disperse the crowd. Local media reported injuries as a result of police brute intervention, including of a 15-year-old boy who was shot with a rubber bullet.

At least one activist, Elvin Mustafayev, was sentenced to 25 days in administrative detention for elevating the issues faced by the local residents on social media. Although officially, Mustafayev was charged with petty hooliganism and disobeying police in Saatli, his friends say the charges are retaliation for the activist’s criticism.

Residents say the acute water shortage has affected their livelihoods. Because the majority of local residents live off farming, the shortage affects both drinking water as well as water needed for irrigation. For years they have been buying drinking water from a nearby district. Speaking to Meydan TV, one local resident complained about the costs of buying drinking water on a regular basis. “We buy water from water carriers. Do you know what that means when unemployment is rampant, and livelihoods are hard to come by? The purchased water is enough for ten days, and that is if you save. This is AZN 20 [USD 11.7]. We pay at least AZN 60 [USD 36] per month for drinking water,” explained Rashad Guliyev, a resident of one of the villages.

Azerbaijan’s main water source comes from Kura and Araz rivers, which have long faced shortages and posed a problem for residents. According to reporting by Eurasianet, “Kura River, which flows from Turkey through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea, has been shrinking in part due to excessive agriculture,” while the shrinking volume from Araz River “has been exacerbated by a large number of reservoirs taking out water.”

Local residents in Saatli say the water they can access is bad for the soil and may eventually leave it infertile Farmers in these areas are faced with the difficult choice of using either sewage water or brackish water for farming — neither of which is good for the soil.

But residents also say the shortages are intentional. Speaking to BBC Azerbaijan service, one resident said the water is redirected to the government officials who own land above the villages in question. “You can go and see it for yourself. The water is abundant. These people are cut off water supply intentionally by the officials in Baku,” explained the resident. Vahid Maharramli, an agriculture expert, confirmed the locals’ allegations.

In an interview with Meydan TV, Maharramli said during his visit to Saatli, he noticed a canal full of water. When he asked the local residents why they were unable to use this water, he was told it was because the water was in use by the manager of Paşa Holding — a massive Azerbaijani conglomerate. “The villagers said whenever they attempt to approach the canal, the police stationed in the area intervene. There is enough water there to solve the problems of a number of regions. There are many such examples, almost in every region,” said Maharramli. Paşa Holding belongs to the ruling family members and is a “conglomerate with interests in banking, as well as construction, insurance, travel, and investments,” according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) investigations. Its chief is President Ilham Aliyev’s father-in-law Arif Paşayev. Paşa Holding’s other shareholders include the president’s daughters Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva.

“If it was a regular person, perhaps we could complain to local officials,” said one resident in an interview with Meydan TV. “Everyone is scared to say anything because they are afraid they will be taken [arrested]. All we want is water,” said another. “They are lying about there being no water. There is water. They are just not giving it to us,” explained another local resident adding that his farmed land had already suffered as a result of the water shortage. Attempts to reach local officials were futile, according to reporting by Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty.

Experts like Maharramli have been warning the state for years about the looming water shortage the country may face. But the state has paid little attention. There are other issues too, according to agriculture expert Shahin Najafov. In an interview with Azadliq Radio, Najafov explained that the problem also stems from the artificial increase of cultivated land as well as improper crop strategy. In a country where there is water shortage and a high risk of drought, cotton farming, which is very common in Azerbaijan, is inefficient as cotton requires significant amounts of water, explained Najafov. International organizations such as the UN Development Program have also warned that unless drastic steps are not taken, Azerbaijan may lose another 23 percent of its water resources by 2050. According to the World Resource Institute’s Aqueduct Projected Water Stress Country Rankings, Azerbaijan is among countries where water stress ranking is “extremely high” in projections for 2020, 2030, and 2040.

Despite significant investments in infrastructure and improvements in water supply access, “the quality of these services suffers from substandard asset management, weak corporate governance, insufficient operation, deficient billing systems, and poor collection rates,” wrote the authors of this World Bank blog post.

The Azerbaijan State Water Resource Agency was newly set up on March 30. However, experts say many of the measures are insufficient. Speaking to Azadliq Radio, economist Rovshan Agayev said although the new state agency comes with a great set of powers, including extraction, processing, transportation, and supply, the opposite should be done instead. Centralizing the entire amelioration and drinking water network in a single institution is unhelpful. Instead, the responsibilities should be divided among relevant state institutions. “The purchase of water and its transfer to farmers should be entrusted to the Ministry of Agriculture. The supply of drinking water to the population should be entrusted either to municipalities or to private investors on a certain basis,” explained Agayev.

Meanwhile, as experts voice concerns over the state’s delayed measures in addressing the country’s water shortage problem, it is the local population, and especially farmers, who are paying a heavy price, including facing rubber bullets and police violence.

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