Environmental Disaster Zone in the South Caucasus: Republic of Armenia

12.01.24 11:00

The European Union has recently prioritised environmental security, and France is no exception. It is worth noting that the Republic of Armenia has recently shown great admiration for France and all things French. Perhaps the Armenian people should follow the French example in their approach to environmental protection. Although French corporations have extracted natural resources from almost half of Africa, they have done so in a predatory manner that has resulted in environmental destruction. France, however, strives to adhere to ecological norms within its own borders.

It is important to note that this statement is subjective and should be marked as such. This is understandable as the French consider France their homeland and have no intention of leaving for the diaspora. The extent to which historical Western Azerbaijan belongs to Hay nationalists, who are accused of polluting and contaminating the area, is a matter of debate.

European sources and Armenian NGOs claim that the majority of the Republic of Armenia has become an ecological disaster zone. This is demonstrated by the research conducted by the Czech non-profit organization Arnika, which collaborated with Armenian NGOs, including the Centre for Community Mobilisation and Support and the information NGO EcoLur.

The Republic of Armenia's exports are primarily based on non-ferrous metallurgy and the mining industry. This includes gold mining, copper smelting, and the production of copper ore concentrate. Non-ferrous metallurgy is one of the few industries in Armenia's struggling economy that remains profitable due to high global prices for non-ferrous metals.
However, copper smelting is known to be one of the most environmentally harmful and hazardous to human health. Gold mining and production are both harmful to the environment. The Ararat gold extraction plant, situated in the Araks River valley, is considered one of the most environmentally unfriendly enterprises in the South Caucasus.
Uncontrolled and environmentally damaging predatory mining extended to the occupied Azerbaijani territories during Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani Karabakh. Following the de-occupation of Karabakh, the cessation of predatory exploitation of Azerbaijani subsoil is a positive step. However, it will take decades and multi-billion dollar investments to reduce the colossal environmental damage caused by the occupiers to the Azerbaijani nature.

The harm from ecological pollution on the territory of the Republic of Armenia continues to be felt by Armenia's neighbouring countries. The pollution of the Araks River has caused significant public outrage in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

According to the Iranian publication Payamema, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant and heavy metallurgy in Armenia are sources of water pollution in the Araz (Arax, Araks) River, resulting in the presence of radioactive substances and heavy metals. The pollution has led to an increase in cancer cases among residents of the areas adjacent to the river in Southern Azerbaijan.

In northern Iran, besides the Araks River, there are no other sources of fresh water available for the needs of the population, industry, and agriculture. Therefore, the northern provinces of Iran, including Ardabil, West Azerbaijan, and East Azerbaijan (also known as South or 'Iranian' Azerbaijan), increasingly rely on the waters of the Araks as their main source of water supply. Although local authorities endeavour to purify the water as much as possible, it is not feasible to entirely remove hazardous impurities. Consequently, there has been an increase in cancer cases in northern Iran, particularly when compared to provinces where alternative sources of water supply are not from the Araks River.
Iranian MP Shakur Pour Hussein has accused Armenia of polluting the Arax River, which he claims has led to an increase in cancer cases in the Mugan region of Iran's Ardabil province.

Considering that the vast majority of the population in Ardabil, West Azerbaijan, and East Azerbaijan provinces are ethnic Azerbaijanis, this situation can be seen as ecocide and genocide of the Azerbaijani population in Iran. Currently, the Azerbaijani population in Iran has no alternative but to use the contaminated and hazardous waters of the Araks River.

It is important to note that the Araks River is not the only water source polluted by dangerous sewage from Armenia. The Debeda River, which flows through the historical Georgian territory of Lore, now part of Armenia, has become heavily polluted. The contaminated waters of the Debeda flow into Georgia, specifically Kvemo Kartli, where they are used for irrigation of agricultural land that provides food for much of Georgia, including the capital, Tbilisi.

The Akhtala Mining and Processing Combine, one of the dirtiest industries, is causing environmental problems for Georgia in northern Armenia. The residents of Metz Hayrum and Chochkan villages in the Lori region of Armenia regularly complain about the negative impact on their health caused by the 'Naatak' tailing dump of the 'Akhtala Mining and Processing Combine' CJSC. The tailings dump is situated on the outskirts of Mets Ayrum village, which was previously inhabited by Azerbaijanis until 1988. It is located just 2 kilometres from the Georgian-Armenian border and contains copper, zinc, barium, arsenic, cadmium, molybdenum and other heavy metals from the Akhtala Mining and Processing Combine. The level of the tailings dump increases annually, and its effluent flows into the Debeda River, which carries it into Georgia.

The Akhtala mining and processing plant, which operates the Shamlug copper deposit, has a polluting infrastructure that affects the communities of Alaverdi, Akori, and Akhtala. This information comes from a study conducted by Arnika in collaboration with the NGO Centre for Community Mobilisation and Support and the information NGO EcoLur. The soil samples taken showed that the levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, molybdenum, nickel, lead and zinc, exceeded the Armenian soil standards for all metals studied by a significant margin. The research also confirmed the hypothesis that pollutants spread in the direction of dominant winds.
The study investigated the bottom sediments of the Debeda River in the area upstream of the central part of Alaverdi town (Alaverdi-Sana'in/Kayaran area) and within the city limits, 500 m away from the point where water effluent enters the Debeda River. The results revealed significantly higher concentrations of heavy metals in the part of the river that flows close to the smelter. The Alaverdi smelter and waste accumulation in burial grounds have had a negative impact on the environment. Despite the smelter being shut down in 2018, the pollution remains and will continue to have a lasting effect.

Oleg Dulgaryan, the President of the Community Mobilisation and Support Centre, highlights that the environmental situation in the Alaverdi and Odzun communities remains unresolved despite the closure of the copper smelter. The consequences of years of pollution will persist unless concrete measures are taken to clean up waste and chemical deposits, conduct public health assessments, and implement treatment measures.

The largest copper and molybdenum reserves in Armenia are currently found in the Kajaran and Agarak copper-molybdenum deposits, respectively. Additionally, copper reserves are present in the Shamlukh copper deposit.

Gold is also mined in the Sotq (Zod) gold deposit. Most of the deposit was located in the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan and is now de-occupied. However, the part that remained in the internationally recognised territory of Armenia continues to be exploited.

Gold mining intensified after the expulsion of Armenian occupants from Karabakh. This led to the discovery of Meghradzor gold, Armanis, and Shahumyan gold-polymetallic deposits in the Republic of Armenia. These deposits are smaller than Zodskoye in terms of reserves. Unfortunately, the ecological situation in the area is deteriorating and has already reached catastrophic levels.

Environmental monitoring conducted in the vicinity of the Meghradzor gold mine revealed significantly higher concentrations of pollutants in the water of the Marmarik River and its surroundings. The Marmarik River flows into the Hrazdan River, and eventually, its polluted water flows into the Araks, Kura, and the Caspian Sea.

The Armanis gold-polymetallic deposit and industrial waste dump are infrastructure facilities owned by the mining company CJSC Sagamar. Leaks from these facilities spread freely in the environment, contaminating the Chknakh River, fields, and homestead plots of local residents. The contamination also spreads through the air as dust, penetrating into nearby houses. Analyses of the chemical content of house dust, soil, and river sediments reveal that the area surrounding the mine has become an ecological disaster zone.

Arsenic concentrations in all soil samples taken in Urasar and Armanis are between 3 and 8 times the maximum concentration limit (MCL) of 2 mg/kg for soil. Chromium concentrations in all soil samples in Armanis exceed the maximum permissible concentration (MPC) for soil, which is 6 mg/kg, by more than 10 times. Meanwhile, the levels of chromium in Armanis' soil and river sediments are, on average, twice as high. Zinc levels in soil, river sediments, and dust samples taken in Urasar and Armanis exceeded the maximum allowable concentration (MAC) in soil, which is 23 mg/kg, by 10 to 20 times.

The exploitation of the Karaberd gold mine is causing an environmental disaster that is affecting the socio-ecological situation and economic activity in the area. Assat LLC has been granted an exploitation license until 2024. However, the company has been operating intermittently and has now announced its intention to expand the mining area. In November 2022, the company announced a public hearing in the community. However, activists and local residents blocked the entrance to the local municipality building and prevented company representatives from entering, disrupting the hearing. This action was taken to express their opposition to the company's failure to fulfil its previous commitments. "Arnika, together with the Czech NGO, NESEHNUTÍ, expressed its negative attitude towards the expansion plan of the Karaberd gold mine by Assat Ltd. also because of its reputation.
Armenia's neighbours are increasingly affected by pollution from its territory, as winds carry it to neighbouring countries. Industrial effluents pollute the waters of the Debeda and Araks, which flow into the Kura and the Caspian Sea. It is important to address this issue to prevent further harm to the environment and neighbouring countries. The South Caucasus and Caspian Sea countries are being held hostage by the ecologically harmful exploitation of subsoil and raw materials in Armenia, without adherence to elementary ecological norms.

Varden Tsulukidze

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