YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The National Assembly began debating on Wednesday government plans to lower the rising water level of Armenia’s ecologically vital Lake Sevan which have met with fierce resistance from environment protection groups.
The government wants to do that by increasing by 46 percent the volume of water flowing out of Sevan into the river Hrazdan that feeds a cascade of hydro-electric power plants and the fruit-growing Ararat Valley south of Yerevan. It says the measure is needed for better irrigating lands cultivated by tens of thousands of local farmers.
Critics insist, however, that its main purpose is to save villas and holiday hotels, many of them owned by government-connected individuals, that have sprung up on the shores of the mountainous lake over the past decade. Those properties are at growing risk of being submerged by a substantial rise in Sevan’s level that began in 2000 in line with a government effort to reverse a dangerous shrinkage of the country’s main water reservoir.
Sevan’s level has risen by 54 centimeters to almost 1,900 meters in the past year alone. Under a special law on Sevan adopted in 2001, it was supposed to rise further in the coming years.
A government-drafted amendment to the law debated by the parliament would raise the maximum annual amount of water that can be pumped out of the lake from 240 to 360 million cubic meters. The government already had the National Assembly raise the legal ceiling from 170 million cubic meters earlier this year.
As lawmakers discussed the bill dozens of environmentalists and members of other civic groups gathered outside the parliament building to protest against what they see as a massive blow to Sevan and Armenia’s entire ecosystem. “The irrigation season is coming to an end,” said Sona Ayvazian of the Armenian affiliated of the ant-corruption watchdog Transparency International. “There are only two more months left. What are they going to do with those extra 120 million cubic meters during that time?”
“The bill stems from the interests of persons doing business on the shores of Sevan,” Ayvazian charged.
Knarik Hovannisian, an environment protection expert with the UN office in Yerevan, also expressed concern as she watched the parliament debates. “By lowering Sevan’s level we would change Yerevan’s climate,” she said. “We are already having a negative climate change and should on the contrary be concerned with further raising Sevan’s level in order to make our climate milder.”
The criticism was echoed by not only opposition parliamentarians but some of their pro-government colleagues. Vahan Hovannisian, a leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, said the authorities have had enough time to clear Sevan’s picturesque shoreline of houses and other structures. “Why didn’t we save money to re-route roads, to rebuild bridges, and to prevent the construction of buildings on the coast?” he asked during the parliament debates, questioning the official rationale for increased use of the lake’s water.
The parliament is expected to vote on measure on Thursday.