The Ararat Valley, a 1,300-kilometer swath of fertile land in western Armenia, lies in the shadow of Mount Ararat. The valley is known as the breadbasket of the country. “It feeds about half the population,” says Armen Varosyan, project director of USAID’s Participatory Utilization and Resource Efficiency of Water (PURE Water) project. He explains that a clean and accessible groundwater reservoir fuels the region’s productivity. But, Varosyan says, “There is a problem.” Armenia’s natural groundwater is drying up.
In the past, “Villages could dig [a shallow] hole and the water would fountain,” explains Armine Tukhikyan, a PURE Water technical expert, because of highly pressurized water located just a few meters below the ground. However, over the last 35 years, and especially in the last decade, the groundwater in the Ararat Valley has been steadily depleted, reduced from 33,000 to less than 11,000 hectares. And the rate of loss is increasing, Tukhikyan says, “The water is shrinking and [sinking] down [further into the earth].”
To address groundwater reduction in the Ararat Valley, USAID developed PURE Water, a three-year intervention to promote civic engagement, good governance, and increased transparency of government water management policies and systems. Ruby Shamayleh, USAID/Armenia’s environment officer, says that USAID designed the program “to raise awareness [of water issues] at all levels and change behavior from all directions.”
Causes of Groundwater Reduction
In 2008, the Armenian government identified fish farming as an easily implementable and productive investment for national development. Since then, the government has issued hundreds of permits for fish farms alongside agricultural lands in the Ararat Valley. Too many permits were issued to large-scale fish farmers, who in turn, drilled unregulated wells and extracted and discarded millions of liters of water.
Furthermore, Soviet-era irrigation and drainage networks have been poorly maintained and have fallen into disrepair. Most of these infrastructure systems are incapable of appropriately channeling discarded fish farm water. Rather, wastewater floods into surrounding agricultural farms, which decreases production. Water distributed throughout villages is affected, too. In many communities, the deteriorated infrastructure prevents users from accessing any water at all. Tukhikyan explains, “Water is provided at the beginning of the village, but doesn’t reach all farmers because, inside the village, the tertiary canals are in very bad shape.”
Poor governance has also contributed to groundwater depletion in the Ararat Valley. Without reliable water meters, water service providers charged users for water they did not receive, and others extracted more than their share. A lack of oversight of the regional Water User Associations (WUAs) — the entities responsible for administering distribution of irrigation water to households and farmers — has been one of the biggest problems, explains Mane Minasyan, a youth citizen journalist trained by PURE Water. She says, “There was a lot of ‘I know this person, I will give him a lot of water, I will not give [as much water to] the other one,’” which has led to a collective sense of distrust of water governing authorities.
Furthermore, WUAs and local governments often excluded their communities from decision-making processes. “PURE Water identified that there was poor civic engagement in [the] decision-making process — almost zero,” Varosyan explains. As a result, users did not have faith in their community water management systems.
Addressing Groundwater Loss through Governance Support
To address the governance issues contributing to the depletion of Ararat Valley groundwater, PURE Water is supporting the Government of Armenia to update laws and improve accountability of its water management policies. For example, the project is using government data compiled by USAID’s Advanced Science & Partnerships for Integrated Resource Development (ASPIRED) project (which supports sustainable water resource management and sustainable practices of water users) to create an online “transparency platform” that publicly tracks water usage and WUA–issued permits. This allows citizens and farmers to keep tabs on water activities in their communities.
Since May 2018, following a peaceful youth-led transition of power, Armenia’s newly elected government recognizes the importance of water issues and has shown a willingness to partner with PURE Water. “Government officials are coming to our projects and working with youth,” says Shamayleh. She cited a brainstorming session that went to 1 a.m. in which a government official joined young local residents to tackle pressing water issues they had identified in their communities.
Furthermore, small-scale fish farmers, who previously tried to raise concerns regarding the unregulated permitting processes for large-scale fish farms, feel they are finally being heard. “At least [the new government] wants to hear us…this is a big thing,” say Zhora Mkrtchyan and Artur Hovhannisyan, two fish farmers collaborating with the project. This inclusive and transparent governance approach is gaining momentum in Armenia, and PURE Water is supporting the government’s efforts to expand it to the water sector.
Training Communities and Engaging Youth
“You would think that behavior change is just about turning the tap off, using less water. But behavior change is a bigger umbrella,” Shamayleh explains. Through a series of targeted trainings, PURE Water is empowering communities to address their concerns with local government officials and “to help them be more aware citizens,” she says. One PURE Water–trained community recognized the “value of getting ideas from its citizens,” says Shamayleh, and independently replicated a participatory budgeting exercise the following year without project assistance. Another community that has been without drinking or irrigation water since the collapse of the Soviet Union worked to raise awareness among the country’s leadership for their need for improved water through a petition campaign.
Much of PURE Water’s success is rooted in its efforts to engage and empower Armenian youth. Tapping into their energy and creativity, PURE Water developed a cohort of citizen journalists and scientists. Minasyan, a citizen journalist, exposed inconsistent WUA management and promoted conversations about water access rights. Her reporting inspired community action, yielding positive responses from local and municipal government officials. Meanwhile, PURE Water’s citizen scientists participated in an “idea harvest,” where they brainstormed innovative solutions to community-identified water challenges and designed projects to bring those ideas to life. One project, “Smart Metering,” seeks to reduce irrigation water loss in one community, and strengthen the relationship between water users and the WUA through data transparency and accountability. The project will install water monitoring devices on irrigation water points to track WUA water distribution quantity and timing. Data from these devices will then be made available to water users through an application on their mobile phones. PURE Water is funding “Smart Metering” and three other youth-inspired activities.
PURE Water has also provided environmental and water preservation training to elementary school teachers, who have replicated it in their classrooms. Recently, several schools participated in daylong field studies of local fish farms, where they tested the water and talked to farmers about wastewater management solutions. This type of activity has engaged young people, as well as their teachers and parents, and encouraged them to participate in their communities’ decision-making processes.
Fish Farmers Must be Part of the Solution
Though fish farms in Armenia are widely believed to be the primary cause of the Ararat Valley’s groundwater depletion, PURE Water maintains that fish farmers are an essential part of the solution. Many small-scale fish farmers are already implementing innovative, low-cost technologies for efficient water use. In one community, with the help of the USAID ASPIRED project (which supports sustainable water resources management and sustainable practices of water users), fish farmers, agricultural farmers, and the mayor collaborated to capture, store, and channel wastewater from the fish farm to nearby farms for agricultural use. As a result, Shamayleh says, “Several hectares of agricultural land that wasn’t used at all is being used for agricultural purposes.” To promote and encourage broad adoption of these water-saving methods, PURE Water widely disseminated a brochure that featured the best practices of nine fish farmers and communities in the Ararat Valley.
Giving Voice for Change
PURE Water is riding the wave of recent political transition in Armenia. The project is reinforcing the new government’s efforts to reduce groundwater loss and improve accountability, services, and transparency in the water sector. Furthermore, by harnessing the energy of innovative youth, raising awareness of water rights across communities, and promoting water-saving technologies locally and nationally, PURE Water is empowering citizens to take action: “Giving voice to those who never had a chance to speak,” says Shamayleh. People have begun to “realize that they have immense power, that [they] can really make a change.”
By Melissa Burnes
This article appears in Global Waters, Vol. 10, Issue 4; for past issues of the magazine, visit Global Waters’ homepage on Globalwaters.org.