The pollution found in the river is significantly reducing the water quality of the reservoir and can have dangerous consequences for the population.
The political hostility between Armenia and Turkey has prevented them from reaching an agreement over water quality standards and water protection.
Before the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet Union concluded a number of treaties with Turkey regarding cooperation over the Arpacay River, which now constitutes the border between Turkey and Armenia. Both sides continue to implement these treaties, despite their lack of bilateral diplomatic relations. However, the treaties only dealt with the quantity to be shared between the co-riparians. The political hostility between the co-riparians has prevented them from extending this cooperation to also include issues of water quality protection.
Obstacles to good management of the waters
The Kars River – originating in Turkey – and the Ahuryan River – originating in Armenia – merge into the Arpacay (or Akhourian) River, which constitutes the border between Armenia and Turkey. Even though Turkey and Armenia have been able to put aside their tensions to sustain bilateral cooperation over the Arpacay River and enforce the agreements brokered before the collapse of the USSR, the current status of cooperation is not sufficient to achieve good management of the waters (see Turkey-Armenia: water cooperation despite tensions). In fact, there are significant loopholes in the treaties, such as the absence of agreement on water quality standards and water protection (Cestti et al., 2015; Carius et al., 2005).
Scientists discover serious pollution in the river
This is all the more important as Armenian environmentalists have discovered that the water from the reservoir is polluted with heavy metals and toxic materials, which can have dangerous consequences for the population (IWPR, 2009). The scientists have also highlighted the additional pollution caused by the disposal of domestic garbage flowing into the reservoir from the Armenian side of the River (Ibid.). A further concern is the downstream impacts of intensive agriculture in Turkey upstream from the river. In fact, the use of chemicals and pesticides is likely to cause salinisation of the water downstream (Carius et al., 2005).
Therefore, water-quality issues now require the co-riparians to engage in cooperation beyond the existing agreements. Since cooperation between Armenia and Turkey has been limited to the old water-sharing agreements established between Turkey and the USSR, the emergence of quality issues in the Arpacay River represents new challenges to the current status quo.
Need of cooperation on water protection
Given scientific findings, scholars have emphasised the need for both co-riparians to cooperate on the setting-up of clean-up mechanisms – which would either absorb or remove the excess traces of heavy metals present in the water (IPWR, 2009). However, even though Armenian and Turkish officials have been meeting every year, they have only discussed water quantity issues, leaving out the water-quality issue (Ibid.).
Lack of scientific bilateral cooperation
Moreover, the lack of cooperation between Armenian and Turkish ecologists has been another obstacle to cooperation to address these water-quality issues (IPWR, 2009). Some scientists had hoped that the normalisation of the bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia could enable deeper environmental cooperation on the Arpacay River (Ibid.). However, the recent failure of the Armenian and Turkish government to ratify an agreement at the beginning of 2015, which would have been a significant step towards the normalization of the countries’ bilateral relations, has dashed this hope (NYtimes, 2015).
Need to raise awareness about water-quality issues
In the light of this deadlock at government level, solutions to the water-quality issues could be initiated at the local level to raise awareness on water-quality issues amongst the population living in the reservoir area (IWPR, 2009). Given the fact that Armenian environmentalists have reported the absence of environmental organisations on the Turkish side of the reservoir (Ibid.), such awareness-raising programmes might be a trigger for some Turkish organisations to mobilise in favour of water protection in the area.
To conclude, the findings of Armenian scientists, who pointed out the presence of hazardous materials in the Arpacay River, indicate that further cooperation in terms of water quality beyond the status quo is needed. Given the current deadlock at the governmental level between Armenia and Turkey, a first solution to the issue might be to foster cooperation through track-2 initiatives.