Azerbaijan’s preemptive reservoir construction following summer border region escalations

Tovuz region

By | Rachel Brooks

Editor/Reporter| Republic Undergound, New African Living Standard

Pictured above, the countryside of the Tovuz region, a region jeopardized by the constant conflict that has played out in this terrain since the late 1980s. Created 2015, CC BY SA 4.0 International, Ilkin Məmmədzaə.

As tensions along the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia flared in July, the Azerbaijani diaspora was posed with a renewed water supply risk. Shelling events occurred in the Tovuz region on July 12, continuing for days afterward. This posed the threat of critical damage to border region water access, in a nation already taxed to the limit in terms of water supply cycle. 

The lives of 13 people were claimed in the July shelling event, which was the worst reported event since the April War of 2016, see Eurasia News. The casualties prompted an envigored response from both nations sharing this border. This further strained the risk of renewed water embargo in the region, as both sides made statements of responsive action that were expected to lead to consequential infrastructure damages. 

This region, citing the Caucasus news outlet Caucasian Knot, saw a series of airstrikes on borderline villages from July 12-14. Azerbaijan reported strikes in the Agdam and Dondar Gushchu villages during this shelling event.  

Baku and Yerevan made statements threatening to strike out at critical infrastructure on either side’s territory. The borderline was posed with the compounded risk of sharing water access with either side of a hostile border zone. 

The risk of infrastructure damages prompted immediate international response.  International media has made an attempt to pacify relations by reporting the conflict as a bilateral and equivalent conflict, failing to underline Armenia’s role as the initiate aggressor in the region. This further complicates any foreign interference, and somewhat perpetuates the crisis.   

Foreign powers have a direct vested interest in water source accessibility due to the foreign investment in energy markets that are powered by hydroelectric stations. This vested interest ensured a foreign policy response to escalation events that would also have direct reflection upon water supply access. 

Foreign powers urged the two states to seek peace and promoted cooperation in the days that followed the border attacks. In the days immediately following escalations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, abbreviated OSCE, urged resumed peace talks. The United States and Moscow promptly responded with a call for an immediate conflict de escalation. 

 On July 22, Radio Free Europe reported that the European Union’s top diplomat urged the two nations to de-escalate the intensifying conflict. EU Diplomat Josep Borrell spoke in a conference call with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian on July 22. Borrell urged the two nations to cease from provocation speech, actions of aggression, and especially actions that would lead to further critical damages to regional infrastructure. 

If Borrell’s diplomacy on July 22 proves to be successful beyond the summer period, it may lead to a reprieve of the water access strain. A de escalation of tensions at the border would decongest the traffic of water across border lines. This would, however, require regional cooperation of all vested parties with the intent of promoting supply chain reprieve, as a ceasefire alone is not enough to ensure that water resources move through the locale without hindrance.

 The stall of water traffic post de escalation is best illustrated in the years that followed the 1994 ceasefire talks of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict’s early days. 

 ReliefWeb stated in 2009 that the conflict had, at that time,  prevented the borderline villages of Azerbaijan from gaining access to border reservoir water and the reservoir vitality. 

This report found the Joghas Reservoir at the heart of the water supply chain debacle in the conflict’s 2009 era. The Joghas Reservoir is located behind the Armenian borderline near Gazakh, Azerbaijan. The Joghas Reservoir has been a contested reservoir, necessary to the drinking and household water needs of the Azerbaijani provinces nearby, since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 1988-1994. Though the ceasefire froze the bloodshed in this region in limbo as of 1994, the Joghas river reservoir remained within the hard lines of the paused conflict, out of the reach of the Azerbaijani villages that once relied upon it. Ceasefire had not, by itself, mitigated a relaxation of the embargo, even 15 years after aggressions cooled. 

One month and two days after the EU approached both nations regarding deescalations, Azerbaijan turned its focus to nationwide water supply projects. This was reported by Azernews on August 24. Azerbaijan commenced with water project construction, completing 50 percent of construction on a reservoir and pipeline project in Neftchala city, on the border of the Caspian Sea. Neftchala is a city that has experienced recent water supply problems, reflecting a nation-spanning water crisis as Neftchala is on the opposite side of the country as the Tovuz region.

 The construction projects followed an additional water supply measures order signed by President Ilham Aliyev on July 28, six days after the EU diplomat corresponded with the Azerbaijani foreign minister. Aliyev urged the government to take greater measures to address the nationwide water supply crisis on July 28, 16 days after the airstrike events and corresponding exchange of infrastructure targeting statements.

A week after reporting the construction measures, Azernews reported that 10 reservoirs would be under construction. The plan to construct 10 new reservoirs was reported on August 28 a month to the day after President Aliyev ordered additional measures for the growing national crisis. Should escalations continue, reservoir projects are a preemptive measure to ensure water access will not be fatally congested for civilians and industry alike.