Rising Interests: Welcomed increase in water level recorded at Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan, the jewel in Armenia’s crown of nature, is on the rise, to the delight of ecologists, nature lovers and the thousands whose livelihoods are connected with fishing.

Having suffered 70 years of artificial drainage, this year, the water level of Sevan (one of the highest fresh water lakes in the world) is higher than in decades, raised by 1 meter, 33 centimeters over the past three years. 

Over the past three years, measures have been implemented to reduce drainage and get the vital lake’s capacity back to previous levels, but the past years' increase is unprecedented. It’s current level of 1,898.22 meters is the highest in more than 20 years, when 200 million cubic meters of water were annually pumped into the lake through the Arpa-Sevan tunnel.

For a decade beginning in 1991, vast drainage (for energy and agricultural purposes) took some 6.1 billion cubic meters of water out of Lake Sevan – twice as much as in the previous decade – reaching a critical point of 1,896.46 meters in 2001.

Though the tide of drainage has been turned, the lake is still the equivalent height of a seven-story building lower than in 1933 (when water from Sevan was first used for hydroelectricity).

Each centimeter’s rise means new hope for the reanimation of the lake’s ecosystem.

The change in current water lines, easily seen by even casual visitors to the lake, reflect actions taken within the “Complex Program on the Rehabilitation of the Sevan’s Ecosystem” which was developed as part of the law “On Lake Sevan” adopted by the National Assembly in 2001. Since that year, water drainage from Lake Sevan reduced at least twice – down to about 150 million cubic meters a year.

The rehabilitation program envisages raising the level of the lake by 6 meters within 30 years at the expense of minimal drainages (20 centimeters every year), thus taking it to the level of 1,904 meters above sea-level – a height it has not seen since 1957.

Scientists say it is at this level that the lake’s endangered ecosystem will finally recover.

Already “endangered”, and potentially creating a separate ecological problem, however, are some 450 hectares of shore that have been submerged by the water’s rise. Nearly half of that territory is man-made forests that, if left under water, might turn the shallows into swamp.

“In the shores of the Sevan that are situated on a plain, even in the case of a 5-centimeter rise in the lake’s level, vast territories submerge. In some places today water has covered 100-120-meter-long offshore parts,” says the head forester of Sevan National Park Suren Aghajanyan.

According to a government decision, stage-by-stage work on the cleaning of the offshore areas began on September 15. During the next two months an area of 92 hectares is to be cleaned of trees and bushes, for which the state has allocated 47.1 million drams (about $107,000).

According to Aghanjanyan, some 50 hectares have already been cleared. “In some places it seems that we pull the trees already from a swamp, the smell was so bad,” Aghajanyan told ArmeniaNow. “There are places where bushes already are submerged under water and I have no idea how to clean them.”

Chairwoman of the NGO “For Sustainable Human Development” and Armenia’s Minister of Nature Protection in 1993-94 Karine Danielyan claims that the rise in the lake’s level should have been accompanied by preparatory works.

“But it was not done in due time, and in fact they just begin these works,” says Danielyan. “Of course, it is good that this work is done at least today, however those territories had to be cleaned beforehand so as to prevent a single tree from submerging under water. Now it will be difficult to clean, but even in these conditions one should get down to business as quickly as possible.”

Tourist to this summer’s Lake Sevan, were surprised when they went to the lakeside and saw that the beaches they had chosen as their favorite spots in the previous summer, this year simply disappeared.

“Do you see the trees sticking up from under the water. My cottages used to stand between these trees, and farther there was a summer-house,” Razmik Mkhitaryan says. “Now these trees are 50 meters away from the shore.”

Mkhitaryan, 65, is one of the dozen entrepreneurs who are engaged in a beach business at the lakeside, letting out cottages and summer-houses. Many of the beach businessmen had to relocate their makeshift cabins several times farther from the shore as water was rising. And some of them have no room to retreat anymore.

“At first, we placed our cottages at the shore. Holiday-makers like it when they can open the window and admire the view of the lake. But who could imagine the water would rise so high? It is the third year that cottages are taken far from the rising water, while water keeps rising, overtaking the cottages,” says Mkhitaryan.

It is predicted that, eventually, nearly 30 kilometers of highway near Sevan will be retaken by Lake Sevan, along with properties built when the big body of water was in decline.

“The government will compensate those individuals or companies that have licensed capital constructions on the level below 1,908 meters,” says First Deputy Minister of Nature Protection Simon Papyan.

According to Danielyan, any capital construction that was built at a level below 1,908 meters is considered illegal, since the program on the restoration of the Sevan’s level existed still during the Soviet times.

“Perhaps there are official permissions for them, however according to all laws those structures are illegal. And it is not the state that must compensate these individuals, but those who allowed such constructions,” Danielyan says.

On September 1, the Government of Armenia approved the draining of an additional 30 million cubic meters (on top of this year’s 120 million allocation). Environmentalists charged that top officials were trying to protect their self interests as owners of private and commercial property built below the legal line.

The reply of the deputy minister is as follows: “There is a strategic decision for the purpose of raising the level of Lake Sevan which was made by the government, and we will be guided by this decision in our further activities.” (Inferring that the government needs to be able to control the level by which the lake rises each year.)

Head of the Environmental Department at the Gegharkunik Governor’s Office Hambartsum Hambartsumyan says that nothing must obstruct the rise in the lake’s level.

“Even if the government has no funds for cleaning the areas, villagers will readily and for free uproot the trees and will use them as firewood. Let them only permit it,” says Hambartsumyan.

Kim Sargsyan, 66, a resident of the village of Chkalovka, was a fisherman in the past, and now he is a cattle-breeder, sitting on a rock on the way to the village, waiting for cows to return from pastures. Looking at Lake Sevan, Kim says:

“Let it rise to become more beautiful!”

The place where Kim was waiting for his cows is said to have been under water in 1940. Today the water is 700 meters away. But getting closer . . .