memorandum by Ms Marković, rapporteur
1. Water unites, water divides
– but remains central to human development. Water is part of humanity’s common
heritage and a resource which is essential to human survival. Yet
water remains a limited and vulnerable resource.
By recognising, in 2010, the right to clean drinking water
and sanitation as a human right, the United Nations emphasised the
role of water in the full enjoyment of life and other human rights.
It also reaffirmed a series of obligations on key stakeholders,
notably States. These are required to secure their population’s access
to sufficient, safe and affordable water resourcesNote
3. Despite continued improvements in local water supply, the
situation remains critical in certain regions of Europe. Problems
are more often than not caused by mismanagement of water resources,
affecting the daily needs of hundreds of thousands of people. One
in every six inhabitants of the world still does not have consistent
access to water. Water can therefore also be a source of conflict.
4. Intensive farming, industrial activities, climate change and
consumer habits, but also policy mistakes and politics can all lead
to conflict situations. Our Parliamentary Assembly’s attention has
been drawn to the serious difficulties the local population is confronted
with in the non-occupied frontier regions of Azerbaijan depending on
the Sarsang water reservoir located in Nagorno-Karabakh.
5. This report deals with the problems affecting the above-mentioned
regions and seeks to propose pragmatic solutions that the authorities
of the two neighbouring countries concerned could adopt in order
to optimise water management in their border regions.
6. As rapporteur, I am obliged to inform the Assembly that, in
the preparation of the report, I only made two fact-finding visits,
both to Azerbaijan: in December 2014, during the winter, and in
August 2015, during the summer, in order to take account of the
changes in living conditions from one season to another. Unfortunately, I
did not have the opportunity to undertake a visit to Armenia, owing
to the lack of co-operation of the Armenian delegation, which did
not accede to the successive requests that were submitted to it:
official letter from the Secretary General of the Assembly, requests
from the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development
and my own requests. Because of the limited time for the preparation
of this report, I was obliged to press ahead with my work without
being able to undertake a visit to Armenia.
2 The Sarsang reservoir: what
is the status quo?
2.1 Key facts about the reservoir
7. Sarsang is a large water reservoir
located in the Nagorno-Karabakh area of Azerbaijan but controlled de facto by Armenia since 1993.
The reservoir was formed in 1976 when a dam was built on the Tartar/Terter
River by the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, as it was
at the time. The installation is located in a mountain valley at
an altitude of 726 metres above sea level, with a dam 125 metres
in height and a capacity to hold up to 575 million m3 of
water. The reservoir’s shoreline is about 50.25 kilometres long.
8. The system also comprises a regulating reservoir with an earth
dam (about 6 million cubic meters) at Madagiz, situated about 20 km
downstream from the main reservoir. Madagiz plays an important role
in the operation of the Sarsang reservoir/irrigation system, because
the irrigation canals (the main canal plus the northern and southern
branches) start downstream from this dam. Up until 1994, water released
from the upper spillways was directed to the canals for irrigation
9. The main purpose of the Sarsang reservoir was to supply the
local population with drinking water and irrigation water for the
fertile areas of this region. It is also the main source of energy
(some 40% to 60% of supply). The Sarsang hydropower plant was designed
to supply energy for the country and water for household and domestic
use. Sarsang water supplies concern about 138 000 inhabitants of
Nagorno-Karabakh and about 400 000 people in other areas of Lower
Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
10. As a result of the Armenian occupation of the area in which
the Sarsang reservoir is located, hundreds of thousands of people
living in this area have been deprived of quality drinking water.
Before the invasion of Azerbaijani territory, the Sarsang dam provided
irrigation water for more than a hundred thousand hectares of fertile
land in six regions of the country (Terter, Aghdam, Barda, Goranboy,
Yevlakh and Aghjabedi).
11. The use of the reservoir should therefore not be viewed as
a stand-alone issue in isolation from its geographical and geopolitical
context. Improvements in water supply to the population can and
should be achieved through a broad range of measures conducive to
more sustainable management of all water resources in the region.
2.2 Problematic aspects regarding
2.2.1 Environmental considerations
As freshwater resources are
very unevenly spread across the South Caucasus,Note
there are many arid areas that are
not viable without human intervention. Droughts are frequent and
irrigation is indispensable for subsistence farming during the dry
months, particularly in summer. Irrigation needs around Sarsang
are particularly high in spring and summer, whereas abundant rainfall
in winter months can even cause floods. The Azerbaijani authorities
estimate that about 100 000 hectares of agricultural land in the
border regions under Azerbaijan’s control close to Sarsang are subject
to severe water stress which may lead to desertification in the
most deprived areas.
13. The Sarsang dam was built on the Tartar River, a tributary
of the Kura. The dam spillway overflows into the Tartar, which joins
the Kura River in the Barda region, before flowing to the Caspian
Sea. Thus any release of water from Sarsang has impacts in the lower
Kura region in Azerbaijan and cannot be considered independently
of the overall flooding issues in the area. This is one of the technical
reasons why water management in Sarsang cannot be considered exclusively
for this reservoir alone.
14. In terms of annual water use, it is estimated that 700 to
800 million cubic meters were used for irrigation in the six regions
(Agdam, Barda, Tartar, Yevlakh, Goranboy and Aghjabedi) before the
15. Following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Armenian authorities
took control of the reservoir and the upstream parts of the irrigation
canal (the whole of the southern branch and a large part of the
northern branch). The Tartar River flows out of the disputed territories
towards the Kura and the lower Azerbaijani plains. Moroever, a large
number of Azeri inhabitants fled from the occupied parts to other
regions of Azerbaijan and are now internally displaced persons.
16. The reservoir has been under the exclusive control of the
Armenian authorities since the conflict; there is no evidence of
any effective communication between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding
the operational management of the reservoir and/or mutual co-operation
to meet water demand in the area since 1993. This situation, which
has caused problems in the six border regions of Azerbaijan, raises
the concerns outlined below.
– Loss of use of existing irrigation
infrastructure for the border regions of Azerbaijan
17. As previously stated, the irrigation canal downstream of Sarsang
(total length about 240 km) divides into a northern and southern
branch. The southern branch passes through occupied territories
in the border regions under the control of the de facto authorities. Consequently,
there is no possibility of using this canal for the irrigation of
the remaining parts of the border regions in Azerbaijan, even if
there is water flowing in it. The northern branch of the canal initially
passes through territory controlled by the de
facto authorities. Only the last 22 km of this northern
branch pass through border regions under Azerbaijani control. Consequently,
over 90% of the canal cannot currently be used to irrigate the six
border regions. Another source of concern is the state of the canal,
which has apparently been out of use for many years and has not
undergone technical inspections or maintenance work for over 20
18. However, some evidence (aerial photography/satellite images)
indicates significant damage to the irrigation canal in two places,
both in occupied territory. The first location with significant
damage is very close to Madagiz (around 1.3 km downstream from the
dam before the point where the canal divides into northern and southern
branches). The second location is in the middle of the southern
branch, where the canal seems to have been destroyed by explosives
over a length of about 100 meters.
19. In both cases the damage occurred during the war (1992-1994),
most likely because of explosives, while fighting took place around
the canal. The fact is that after the war the damage was never repaired.
In any event, under these circumstances, water from the Sarsang
reservoir cannot be used for irrigation by anyone until the canal
has been repaired.
– Shortage of water for irrigation
20. Water is mainly released downstream from Sarsang to the Tartar
River (which flows partly into the irrigation canal at Madagiz)
during the autumn and winter months. During the spring and summer
months, however, when the need for irrigation water is high, there
is evidence that water flow from Sarsang is reduced. Consequently
there has been an acute shortage of irrigation water in the six
regions. Since there is no alternative surface freshwater source
in the area, Azerbaijan has, since 1994, put in place an extensive groundwater
pumping programme, by drilling a large number (over 700 in total)
of artesian wells. This has met at least part of the irrigation
water needs for the six regions concerned, but has created a number
of new problems which are described below.
– Aquifer overexploitation
21. The aquifer groundwater level in the area has been getting
increasingly lower over the years, leading to the conclusion that
fresh groundwater inflows to the aquifer are less than the outflows
(i.e. the water pumped for irrigation); this leads to overexploitation
of groundwater resources and a deficit in aquifer recharge. It has also
been noticed that the rate of flow from installed pumping systems
has decreased in recent years.
22. The lower groundwater level leads to increased pumping depth,
which in turn increases energy demands for irrigation.
– Salinity intrusion to the aquifer
23. Overexploitation of the aquifer causes the groundwater level
to get increasingly lower, which, in turn, leads to salt (or brine)
water intrusion and increased salinity in the water pumped from
the wells. This is a major water quality issue for crops, leading
to reduced productivity. It is also a major environmental issue
for the region in general. The European Union’s Water Framework
Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) describes salinity intrusion as
a serious environmental problem which should be avoided.
24. The chemical composition of the pumped groundwater is different
from that of surface water, containing minerals (notably heavy minerals),
which make it unusable (or less suitable) for the crops cultivated
in the area. Organisations present in Azerbaijan (for example the
office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)) have
started collecting samples from the boreholes for testing water
quality. It seems the quality of groundwater has been decreasing
over the years. This may lead to reduced crop productivity, changing
of crops, or even abandoning agriculture altogether in some parts
of the region.
– Quality of potable water
25. Water from Sarsang is not being used for drinking purposes,
even during the winter months when water flows abundantly in the
canal. This is due to concerns that the water may be contaminated
with heavy minerals or toxic waste. For instance, in 2007 there
were reports of dead fish and dying cattle, attributed to contamination
of the water released from Sarsang.
26. The available groundwater from pumping is not always usable
for drinking purposes, due to the presence of heavy minerals. Large
quantities of potable water for the population of the six frontline
regions is being transported from other regions and stored in tanks.
Although the volume of potable water needed is only a small fraction
of the water needs for irrigation, and transport is technically
feasible (and available through post-1994 installed infrastructure
in the above-mentioned six regions), it leads to increased living
costs for the population, who have to pay for it. Although it is
State subsidised, it still poses an economic concern for the inhabitants, which
could be avoided were they able to safely drink water from Sarsang.
27. The fact that inhabitants in some villages in the Tartar region
have to buy drinking water is more than simply a financial issue,
however. The population’s lack of funds means that the household
water tanks are not compliant with health and safety standards.
The cast iron tanks have been in use for many years and although cleaned
four or five times a year, they are rusted. The plastic tanks, despite
being washed once a month, are also in a questionable state, the
walls blackened and the base covered in vegetation. All of which
indicates that the water stored in the cast iron and plastic tanks
is potentially a threat to public health.
28. At times of peak rainfall, during the winter months, water
is released from Sarsang through the Tartar River without warning,
causing (or exacerbating) flooding issues in the area. There were
flooding incidents, for instance, in 2011, when at a time of increased
rainfall in the area, water was also released from Sarsang without
warning, adding to flood flow in the Kura, increasing flooding in
the lower Kura region, beyond the point where the Tartar joins the
Kura. The land irrigated by the Kura is situated outside the six
frontline regions, but, as has already been stated, Sarsang is part
of the larger Tartar-Kura system and has impacts beyond the six frontline
29. Major flood protection works were carried out along the Kura
after this incident, but the danger persists. Sarsang alone cannot
cause a major flood in the lower Kura region, but the region is
susceptible to flooding. The lack of communication between Armenia
and Azerbaijan raises fears that unexpected water releases from Sarsang
may exacerbate flooding during periods of heavy rainfall.
30. In 2013 there was an incident where sediment releases from
Sarsang reached the lower parts of the Tartar River and settled
in the river bed, affecting six villages. There are concerns that
other unannounced sediment releases may occur in the future.
– Environmental impact: soil
31. Twenty years of disruption to the region’s water balance and
haphazard releases of water into the irrigation system have led
to soil erosion. Targeted planting has helped to slow erosion in
some villages. The lack of irrigation is causing soil dehydration
and desertification. Thousands of hectares of arable land are affected
by erosion in the Aghdam, Barda and Tartar regions where the humus
is being blown away.
– Impact on productivity in agriculture
32. Because of the reduction in the aquifers which feed the artesian
wells, these wells have become less efficient. In fact, the maximum
time for which water can be drawn from the wells during the season
is two or three hours a day. The water level in the aquifers is
declining, causing interruptions in farming activity. According
to the farmers, it is extremely difficult to irrigate crops when
the amount of water available is 50% to 75% less than that usually
33. The artesian wells supply the farmers with water that has
a very high saline content; as a result, the quality of the produce
grown diminishes and the soil fertility is affected. According to
the farmers, irrigating the land in this way not only reduces the
annual crop yield but also destroys the plantations and causes the orchards
to dry up after two or three years.
– Impact on biodiversity
34. The region’s natural resources and flora and fauna have been
affected by the water shortage around Sarsang. Local communities
are trying to combat the water shortage by various means, both technical
and financial; as regards local flora and fauna, a number of species
have been wiped out while others are disappearing. Some 36 species
of rare animals and 31 species of rare plants are in danger of extinction.
2.2.2 Security aspects
35. In addition to annual fluctuations
in water flow, human security cannot be guaranteed for technical reasons:
the concrete structures of the reservoir are aging and for many
years there has been insufficient maintenance. The upkeep of the
reservoir and its installations has been neglected, creating a major
threat to security. The accidental destruction of the dam or sabotage
would pose a huge risk to towns and villages in the Tartar, Aghdam,
Barda, Goranboy, Yevlakh and Aghdjabedi regions.
36. Currently under the control of Armenian military forces, the
dam needs some urgent and long overdue work. In the event of an
accident or sabotage, the 400 000 inhabitants of the six regions
on the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact as well as public
and private property would be at risk of being completely destroyed.
37. There have been some reports of incidents when explosives
(mines) were found in water released from Sarsang, injuring or killing
inhabitants in the six frontline regions. There was an incident
in 2012 when a child and his mother died from explosives in a toy
allegedly found in the canal. Mines were also found in 2013 (8 mines)
and in 2014 (14 mines). There was a report of a shepherd being killed
by a mine in December 2014.
38. Because of inadequate or non-existent maintenance, there are
also fears among those living downstream from the dam that it could
break. In such an event, the lower Tartar region would flood, with
severe impacts on the local population and property. Approximately
a thousand hectares would be completely submerged.
39. Apart from the extreme event of a dam break, the Azerbaijani
authorities worry about the overall state of the dam, because it
has not been inspected by Azerbaijan since 1993. It is not known
whether any inspection or maintenance has been carried out, although
the sediment release is indirect evidence of maintenance. Of course,
in the event of a sudden collapse, earth-fill dams, such as the
Sarsang dam, are, in theory, much safer than other types (especially
arched dams). It should be pointed out, however, that without an
on-site inspection of the dam there is no way of assessing its precise
condition or of saying with certainty what the security risks might
be from a technical point of view.
40. It is essential therefore to establish contact with the competent
authorities and experts in order to clarify this point. Azerbaijan
has called for an in-depth assessment of the reservoir’s condition
by independent engineers and hydrologists, something the authorities
see as an essential safety measure.
2.2.3 Legal aspects
41. The so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh
Republic” established in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied
territories is not recognised by any State or international organisation
and is not considered lawful.
42. Resolving the water management challenges for the Sarsang
reservoir requires political will. Yet water governance itself is
a complicating factor in the multilateral talks over the future
of this region because water is a strategic resource and will become
even more so in the future with demographic growth and climate change. We
should remind the authorities concerned of their responsibilities
and obligations under international law towards the civilian population
whose vital needs in water should not be used by politicians as
a bargaining chip.
43. In addressing this complex problem, one that has serious implications
for the local population, it makes sense to refer to international
documents concerning past solutions to similar situations. Some
3 600 international conventions on the control and use of water
resources have been concluded to date. Many of these conventions
were concerned with boundary demarcation by waterways between neighbouring
States or the common use of waterways for shipping and fishing.
44. Following the social and environmental challenges of the 20th
century and the early years of the 21st century, fresh water, which
is no longer only an economic and political issue but also a humanitarian
one, has acquired a legal character. It is interesting to note that
the international legal instruments on the use and protection of
fresh water reject the idea of monopoly and emphasise that fresh
water is a social and cultural good which belongs to everyone.
45. In an effort to ensure that fresh water is used in a balanced,
fair and humanitarian manner, several international institutions
have been set up, the most famous being the World Water Council,
which began operating in 1996, with its headquarters in Marseilles.
Member States of the Council of Europe should respect international
conventions which seek to prevent possible complications in border
areas. A number of conventions are vital when it comes to finding
solutions to conflicts of this kind:
- the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their three Protocols
adopted in 1977 and in 2005 are now recognised as key international
instruments aimed at protecting the rights of civilians in military
- the Dublin Principles signed under the auspices of the
United Nations in 1992;
- the Helsinki Rules (International Law Association) which
provide the legal framework for the United Nations Water Convention
signed in Helsinki in 1992;
- the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a
Transboundary Context (Espoo (Finland), 1991);
- the Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment (Kyiv,
- in 2000, the European Parliament and the European Council
adopted a Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) in order
to put an end to disputes and implement water resource management and
protection based on balanced standards.
47. All these documents require the parties to take appropriate
steps to prevent water pollution which has, or threatens to have,
a transfrontier impact, and to ensure that transfrontier water management
is carried out in a rational, reasonable, fair and environmentally
friendly manner, especially in the case of activities that could have
a transfrontier dimension, so as to ensure the conservation or even
restoration of ecosystems.
In these international conventions and documents, the right
to water is seen as being an integral part of human rights: “Water
is ... fundamental for life and health. The human right to water
is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite
for the realization of other human rights.”Note
49. The armed occupation of the river basin amounts to a failure
by Armenia to comply with the United Nations Helsinki Convention
on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes
and other conventions dealing with other aspects of the problem
(public health, the rights of civilians in military conflicts –
in this case the “frozen” conflict –, preventing the protagonists
in conflicts from using the atmosphere, the biosphere and the hydrosphere
as a means of exerting pressure, technical rules and standards concerning
the correct maintenance of water facilities and the protection of
2.2.4 The most urgent needs of
the population around the reservoir
50. Whilst the technical safety
of the reservoir remains a matter that is subject to further verification,
the population’s needs for water on a daily basis are real and acute,
as Sarsang is the sole source of water for Azerbaijan’s frontline
regions. For geological reasons, drilling artesian wells in the
Azerbaijani regions close to Sarsang will not resolve this problem
in any lasting way. The water supply infrastructure was severely
damaged during the years of intense fighting in the early 1990s
or deteriorated later due to lack of maintenance. This lack of maintenance
was largely responsible for the 2010 floods which ravaged vast areas
of Azerbaijan’s frontier regions.
51. In a broader geographical context, the Tartar River which
supplies the Sarsang reservoir is a tributary of the Kura, the largest
river in the Caucasus. Hydrological interconnections mean the Kura
River forms a large part of the Kura-Araks River Basin covering
four countries in the region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey).
The water needs of the population who depend on this network are
affected not only by shortages, but also by high levels of pollution.
These common problems can only be overcome through regional co-operation
on sustainable management of water resources.
52. The current situation regarding
the operational management of the Sarsang reservoir and its consequences
raises a series of issues and problems in the six frontline regions
of Azerbaijan: shortage of water for irrigation and drinking purposes,
loss of irrigation infrastructure, aquifer overexploitation, leading
to subsequent aquifer salinity and groundwater quality problems
and increased flooding and heightened security concerns.
53. During the war, there was substantial damage to the main irrigation
canal. As a result there is currently no way of using water from
Sarsang for irrigation purposes. Repair work is essential if a serious
ecological and humanitarian crisis is to be averted.
54. At the same time, studies need to be carried out in order
to report on the situation with regard to public health and the
state of the ecosystems, how water sources, flora and fauna are
being protected against pollution, and prospects for improving everyday
living conditions for the local population.
55. Having been neglected for over 20 years, this dam and its
installations constitute a hazard which demands urgent action. As
long as the occupation continues, the Sarsang dam will pose a serious
threat to approximately 400 000 people who live downstream from
56. To conclude, it is regrettable that owing to lack of co-operation
on the part of the authorities, I was unable to carry out an on-site
visit on the Armenian side in order to complete the assessment of
the reservoir. The fact remains, however, that the reservoir lies
on the Armenian side, and the civilian populations which depend
on it live on the Azerbaijani side. Their fate is tied to the current
and future state of the reservoir, which is itself in the hands