The world’s attention to geographical conflicts is often focused on the loss of human life and infrastructure, and frequently overlooked are the millions of people left in despair, with their homes, lives and hopes shattered.
Similarly, even if there’s ample coverage of conflicts based on geography, the impacts of war on the environment tend to be ignored. The Earth is fast running out of its natural resources and with the threat of irreversible climate change looming an often neglected aspect of armed conflicts is the weaponization of natural resources.
From disputes between India and Pakistan over the Indus River to China seeking to control the South China Sea to maritime and land disputes in Latin America, geopolitical conflicts ofen result from attempts to control geographical resources by force.
The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a long-standing territorial dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh means that once again the landlocked mountaineous area demands our attention to the deteriorating health of the region’s river systems, which can worsen the effects of climate change, trigger devastating fires, and cause other adverse effects across the region.
For decades, both sides in this long-running conflict have blamed the other for subverting rivers through dams, polluting waterways, and blocking natural water sources, all of which have led to chronic water shortages for local communities.
In 1988, the region’s ethnic Armenian community demanded the right to leave Azerbaijan – a demand that was opposed by both the latter’s government and the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, Armenians voted to leave the union. As Azerbaijan tried to clamp down, Armenia backed separatist forces.
Nagorno-Karabakh went on to declare itself an autonomous independent region but this bid has never been recognized by the international community. The current conflict has not only inflicted pain and suffering on local communities, but it has also caused grave damage to the region’s environment. While a peace deal, brokered by Russia, has now been signed, tensions remain high and hostilities could soon return, further impacting the region’s fragile ecosystems and natural environment.
Troublingly, the region’s rivers have been shrinking due to increasing water and land use for agriculture, prolonged droughts, and the construction of upstream reservoirs. The Kura river system, which allows salt water from the Caspian Sea to flow upstream, is faltering. The average amount of water being sent through the Kura River has declined to 15%. River systems in both Azerbaijan and Armenia are projected to decrease by 11.9% by 2030 and by 2100 the number could rise to 37.8%.
Increased pollution and the control of river waters impact all major water systems in the area. In October, when the conflict ignited once again, Armenia warned of a possible threat of large-scale pollution in local rivers. The continued military operations, it said, posed a threat to the reservoirs, dams, and natural water sources. In a region prone to fires, which deplete green cover, prolonged armed conflict could severely affect already stressed water sources.
Another threat comes from mining operations that often fail to abide by environmental standards. As a result, Armenia’s rivers are now polluted and pollution threatens other rivers in the region. Rivers such as the Voghji and Okhchu have been polluted due to waste dumping from gold mines, industrial plants, and Armenia’s water and sewage projects.
The Voghji river was declared unsuitable for human use while other rivers such as the Okhchuchay river (a tributary of the Araz) have been found to have heavy metal contents, specifically copper, manganese, zinc, chromium, iron, and molybdenum.
River pollution caused by Armenian mining operations has long-lasting impacts on the region’s water crisis and also affects Azerbaijan. There have also been allegations of Armenians causing severe damage to the environment in certain areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, such as cutting trees and burning forests, before handing them back to Azerbaijan.
In a 2004 United Nations-sponsored report Armenian occupation was faulted for resulting in major environmental challenges and was seen to pose a threat to the local environment in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The report cited the overuse of pasturelands, the clearing of forests for agricultural purposes, and intense mining.
River pollution, the dumping of hazardous chemicals, and the clearing of forests have also led to severe health concerns for residents. In areas around the Voghji River the number of chronic diseases has increased, including liver and bone diseases, cancers, and congenital abnormalities. Uranium deposits in the region are now at dangerously high levels.
Azerbaijan wants to hold Armenia responsible for polluting the region’s rivers, but the latter, along with Georgia, refuses to shoulder any blame. What is undeniable is that the pollution of rivers by Armenian mining operations, coupled with a seemingly endless conflict, has pushed the region to the brink of an environmental calamity.
To prevent further environmental damage, it is imperative that the international community realize the severity of the situation facing the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s rivers and the disastrous consequences of harm inflicted on the local environment.