Armenia’s Battles with Industrial River Pollution
An important fight on which Armenians and Azerbaijanis share a common concern
The river in question is (from west to east) the Voghji in Armenia, then through Azerbaijan as Okhchuchay where it eventually joins the Araz/Aras on the border of Azerbaijan and Iran. Image: Wikimedia Commons
On October 17, 2019, waters turned milky white in a mountain river that flows through southern Armenia. The source of the contamination was traced back to a tailings dump (i.e., a pile of processed waste rock) belonging to the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC), a giant mine that’s one of Armenia’s biggest taxpayers and whose main share-owner is the German group Cronimet.
Local environmentalists raised the alarm but said that it was just the biggest of many other such spills. Environmental lawyer Artur Grigoryan, who had been dismissed from an inspectorate already investigating the combine, told OC Media that he feared that the mine’s economic and political connections made it the kind of power that’s hard to hold to any true account. In general, he mused, such companies prefer to pay small token fines rather than making the multi-million-dollar capital investments that would be required for suitably environmentally robust infrastructure. The mine’s political links are interesting: in 2006, Cronimet’s German founder and managing partner Günter Pilarsky became one of Armenia’s honorary consuls in Germany; for a while, a major ZCMC shareholder was reportedly a son-in-law of Armenia’s third president, Serzh Sargsyan; and more recently a slice of the ZCMC pie is said to be owned by former Russian minister, Mikhail Zurabov.
The pollution issue has other important international angles, too. The river in question is the Voghji, which continues through Azerbaijan as Okhchuchay and then joins the Araz/Aras, which forms the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. Iran raised the urgent question of cleaning up Armenia’s rivers at a bilateral meeting in Tabriz on November 19-21, 2019. The Armenian delegation reportedly promised to “repair and refurbish the facilities with the aim of completely removing the pollution” by 2021.
Some of the 557 dead fish found in the Okhchuchay River of Azerbaijan, March 2021. Image: Azerforum
However, recent reports show that Armenia did not achieve this and that pollution continues to be severe. Azerbaijani news sources reported in March 2021 that pollutants in the Okhchuchay had once again reached such a high level that trout in the river were dying due to Armenian pollutants from upstream mining. On the stretch of river between Shayifli and Jahangirbeyli, villages in Azerbaijan’s recently de-occupied Zangilan region, 227 trout and 330 perch were counted as having died due to excessive levels of heavy metals in the water. A specialist for the Azerbaijani Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources revealed that such samples collected over the first three months of 2021 showed nickel, iron and molybdenum-copper 7, 4 and 2 times higher than acceptable norms.
For once, this is an issue on which Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Iranians can completely agree. There is no excuse for negligence in damaging the region’s ecology, and the knock-on effects of heavy metals in the water supply threaten people’s health in all three countries.