By | Peter Nayland Kust
Editor/Media Founder | A Voice of Liberty
Pictured above, the landscape of Azerbaijan as it appeared in 2009, CC BY 1.0 Generic. A beautiful countryside is one of the many casualties of the international law violations in this region.
Wars are fought over land, and over the right to claim this or that strip of land. Borders are drawn for land.
Yet, with each speck of earth there is a resource every bit as precious, if not more so: water. Land may be wealth, land may be power, but water is life.
When Armenia seized Azerbaijanis territory around Nagorno-Karabakh during their 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan, they did not merely take control of the land. They took control of the water as well. More specifically, they took control of the Tartar River and the Sarsang Dam and Reservoir, the sole source of drinking and irrigation water for the roughly 102,000 Azerbaijanis inhabiting that Tartar region, and the 477,800 people living within not only the Tartar region but also Azerbaijani areas of Barda, Yevlakh and Goranboy, and others.
Armenia thus holds the lives of those Azerbaijanis quite literally in the palm of their hand. Thus far, they have not been good stewards of that power.
International Law Is Clear: Water Is A Human Right
Any discussion of any conflict between nations involving water must begin with the very clear line drawn by the United Nations regarding drinking water. Water is a human right, and access to clean drinking water is a human right. This was spelled out in UN Resolution 64/292, adopted on 28 July 2010, wherein the UN:
Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a
human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights;
The UN takes the obligation even further by asserting the right transcends national borders:
Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all;
Regardless of whether nations are at war with each other, no nation is at liberty to deprive another nation or any people of clean drinking water, sanitation, and irrigation.
People are to be allowed drinking water. Per 64/292, as well as the many prior treaties and conventions expressing the same fundamental principles upon which the UN Resolution is based, that is the beginning, middle, and end of the discussion within international law.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of the United Nations.
Armenia Is Misusing The Sarsang Dam To Inflict Harm On The Azerbaijanis
This is the backdrop against which one must view Armenian stewardship of the Sarsang Dam. This is the backdrop which condemns that stewardship, as it has been an unequivocal misuse of hydrologic resources to inflict suffering upon the Azerbaijanis populations downstream of the dam.
Prior to Armenia’s seizure of the Nagorno-Karabakh, the Sarsang Reservoir was Azerbaijan’s fourth largest, and provided not just drinking water but irrigation to the districts of Tartar, Barda, Yevlakh, Goranboy, Agdam, and Agcabedi. It should be noted that, in 1994, agriculture constituted 32.99% of Azerbaijan’s GDP, and the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is widely considered a major contributor to the early 1990’s decline of agricultural output in Azerbaijan. Armenian mis-management of the Sarsang Dam stands as the most likely culprit in this conflict-induced decline.
In particular, what Armenia has done, according to a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, is cut off water releases in the summer when they are needed for corps, and release excessive amounts of water in the winter to flood the croplands below the dam—along with the Azerbaijanis communities downstream from the dam. Elkhan Suleymanov, a member of the Azerbaijan delegation to PACE, has accused Armenia of weaponizing the Sarsang against Azerbaijan with this destructive schedule of water releases.
Additionally, Armenia has built its own irrigation canals to bypass the network of irrigation canals that had been constructed as part of the Sarsang Reservoir facility, and which had remained in Azerbaijanis hands after the 1994 ceasefire in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result of these efforts, the agricultural development of the Lower Karabakh, which had been expanding prior to the conflict, has been severely degraded.
Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan characterizes these actions as “environmental terror”.
Armenia Is Violating International Law
Since taking control of the Sarsang Dam, the de-facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh (which is technically autonomous from Armenia) has used the hydroelectric generators at the dam to provide electricity to the Karabakh region. Per the region’s de-facto deputy prime minister, Arthur Aghabegian, water release from the Sarsang Dam is determined solely by the power needs of the Karabakh.
However, those needs to not take into account the water needs of the 102,000 people living below the dam, nor the larger needs of the, which also need access to the Sarsang Reservoir’s water resources. Regardless of the Karabakh’s requirements for electricity, per UNR 64/292, neither Armenia nor the de-facto Karabakh government can deny people downstream from the Sarsang Dam access to its water resources.
Nor is this merely a question of a single UN Resolution. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined in 2001, on 26 January 2016, passed Resolution 2085, which concluded that Armenia was deliberately depriving Azerbaijanis in the frontier regions of Azerbaijan of water. Armenia was found to be violating not just UNR 64/292 but also the 1966 Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers and the 2004 Berlin Rules on Water Resources.
PACE Resolution 2085 explicitly stated that Armenia’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories was the cause of an humanitarian water crisis:
It deplores the fact that the occupation by Armenia of Nagorno-Karabakh and other adjacent areas of Azerbaijan creates similar humanitarian and environmental problems for the citizens of Azerbaijan living in the Lower Karabakh valley.
The Resolution also noted that Armenia had not performed regular maintenance on the dam in the 20 years it had been in possession of the structure. Should the dam fail, it would be catastrophic to the aforementioned 477,800 people living downstream from the dam.
Consequently, the resolution called on Armenia to:
- Withdraw its armed forces from the region and allow international management and supervision of the dam and its hydrologic resources, including the scheduling of water releases.
- Cease using water resources as weapons of war in its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan.
The resolution also condemned Armenia explicitly for refusing to cooperate with the PACE investigative efforts on conditions at the Sarsang Dam.
No doubt is left that, in the eyes of the Council of Europe as well as all pertinent NGOs, Armenia is violating international law in its misuse of the Sarsang Dam.
Armenia Seems Not To Care
Despite the clear and unequivocal stance of international law, and despite the clear and unequivocal stance of PACE, Armenia appears largely unfazed by the reprobation it has received over the Sarsang Dam. Despite years of international condemnation and pressure, it has continued to abuse and misuse the hydrologic resources of the Sarsang Reservoir.
In March of 2019, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan Mukhtar Babayev accused Armenia of “vandalism” over its continued mistreatment of the Sarsang, in violation of international law. Babayev decries the ecological damage being done to Azerbaijanis lands as well as the human suffering Armenia has caused.
On 12 July 2020, Armenia shelled Aghdam in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district, in a seemingly unprovoked escalation of hostilities in a region far removed from the disputed Karabakh territories. This was hardly the action of a country sensitive to international opinion or receptive to international pressure.
In September of 2020, Akbar Mammadov of AzarNews documented how Armenia’s “environmental terror” was still ongoing, including how Armenia has to date failed to abide not only by PACE Resolution 2085 but also UN Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 calling for Armenia to withdraw its military forces from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s response to the criticism and condemnation has been a collective shrug of indifference. Resolutions and international opprobrium are not changing how it uses (or misuses) the Sarsang.
Greater International Response Is Inevitable
Russia, Turkey, and Iran all show ambitious interests in the Caucasus region.The Caucasus region was under the former political influence of all three states, and this historical value drives their interests in the region still.
Due to the foreign influence in the region, conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will only continue for so long before an international resolution is either mediated and negotiated, or imposed arbitrarily on all sides.
Even without the hegemonic scenarios, however, any failure of the Sarsang Dam will trigger the humanitarian responses of the international community, which Armenia will not be able to ignore.
In all scenarios, Armenia is not likely to prevail in the court of international public opinion, which already condemns it for how it has handled Nagorno-Karabakh since expropriating the territory by force.
Armenia largely won the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Because of its ongoing weaponizing of water against civilian populations, in the long term it is almost certain to lose the putative peace.