- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 November 14 , 2003 

Armenia's Watergate: Politicians talk, experts explain, citizens wait

A number of 'Ws' remain unanswered concerning water problems resulting from a ruptured pipe some three weeks ago. Who will take responsibility for the inconvenience of hundreds of thousands of citizens and the hospitalization of more than 200? And, when?

The "Why" is being investigated by the General Prosecutor's Office, while one explanation has to do with old pipes and the old problem of no money to fix them.

But for average citizens, the most aggravating element of it all is that no elected or appointed official has apologized for the fact that their constituents' drinking water got mixed with sewage.

It does not mean that officials do not care at all, they simply are not well brought up. One of the recent parliamentary discussions of the issue clearly showed that the water accident could be viewed from different points.

The most important is an economic aspect: it's clear that the whole water supply system needs to be renovated. According to press secretary of Yerevan Water Canal Murad Sarkisyan, 30 percent of city pipes can be compared with a rusty sieve. Another 30 percent aren't expected to last another decade. The remaining 40 percent, should work okay.

"Yerevan was developing faster than its water supply system," Sarkisyan says. "The first pipe line appeared on December 23, 1911. There was only one water reservoir for 150 cubic meters then, which was filled by Katnakhpiur spring (20km north from Yerevan) and nine places where water was being sold.

"The city was growing up, new pipes were built but again the construction was not enough to serve citizens' needs. For instance, new buildings were being connected to the pipes by temporary schemes and stayed that way. The Soviet government never had a proper water policy, nor proper management. As a result Yerevan suffered (still is) from a lack of water, though the springs around could supply at least two cities like it."

In the recent calamity, some are blaming the Italian company "A. Utility", which in 1999 won an international tender for water management rights in Yerevan. But the company's director Richard Wolkling says mishaps are common for the Armenian water system and it's up to investigators to find out the cause of the recent one.

"To manage the system first of all meant to be aware of the amount of water both in pipes and in people's apartments," water expert Sarkisyan says. "We had to know how many liters are being used, and what is the percentage of loses to estimate the condition of pipes, the needs of the city and draft our further plans. It's unbelievable, but we did not have water meters even at the main pipes."

According to Sarkisyan, almost $12 million was spent on construction of pumps, laboratories, water meters, cars, field offices, staff, etc.

The remaining 15 million (from a World Bank and Government of Armenia allotment of $27 million) is to be spent on buying new pipes (imported from Germany, with a 50-year guarantee), for partial renovation and for creating separate supply zones for each city district.

Yerevan Water Canal promises round-the-clock water supply to 80 percent of Yerevan by the end of 2004 (presently about 35 percent get 24-hour water). But it doesn't promise that water will not be contaminated again.

"Water is coming to Yerevan from locations we are not in charge of," Sarkisyan says. "And please do not forget that the sewage system also needs reconstruction. To get rid of all the problems related to water it is necessary to implement a general project, which will cost approximately $450 million. The sum is so huge that there is no sense even to dream about it."

Yerevan is fed by 13,000 liters of pure spring water every second. What is happening to this purest water on its way to the Armenian capital?

"People have a right to know what they drink", says pensioner Armenui Shiladjyan.

In this rare case, members of the National Assembly in the past several days are agreeing with the pensioner. In Parliament these days, politics are being mixed into the water debate (as if it weren't polluted enough from sewage).

Addressing Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan, Constitutional Right Union leader Hrant Khachatryan said: "You treat people like cattle. You even do not know that there are people who can not afford to buy bottled water for 200 drams (30 cents). And you want them to pay for the sewage water?"

Margaryan dismissed the charge, claiming that the Government never treated people that way, and promised that all guilty of water contamination will be punished.

Another PM, Gurgen Arsenyan, a successful businessman and United Labor party member who lives in the district most affected by the contamination said:

"As a citizen I hoped that I would be warned that water in my apartment was damaging for my health. Only 30 hours after the accident we learned about that. I want to ask people who have profits from water business, whose salaries are paid from our taxes why they neglect their duties and who is going to be responsible for risking the health of 300,000 people?"(The population of affected districts.)

Members of the opposition Justice Bloc say they've already found the guilty party.

"We can't rely on government officials, neither on investigators. The main guilty one is the President," Justice faction member Aram Sarkisyan said.

According to him and his Bloc colleagues, water contamination is a valid reason for the president to resign.

Meanwhile Dashnak PM Hrayr Karapetyan joined other deputies in encouraging their colleagues to not politicize the issue.

"The issue is complicated enough and it's better to find solutions rather than speculate," he said.

The political majority share his opinion though there is a little belief that answers will exhaust all questions.

"Some politicians are happy to exploit the incident and all are eager to find out and punish the guilty. I am afraid that the easiest way out is to punish Yerevan Water Canal even if we had nothing to do with water contamination," Muradyan says.

"As for accusations that we had to inform the population earlier, we were rejected from TV access on Oct.26, Sunday night. TV companies who now are criticizing us harshly did not provide us time to warn citizens. And honestly, earlier (while water was being sampled) we could not even imagine that the accident was so serious."






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