Callous pollution of Araz River begs Iranian involvement
By Orkhan Amashov
The ongoing reckless pollution of the transboundary Araz River by Armenia’s mining industry remains unaddressed. The subject is by no means new, neither is the concern, which has been voiced on a countless number of occasions to no avail.
Azerbaijan, on an official level, has long defined this pattern of behaviour as an 'ecological terror'. Iran, no lesser sufferer from Armenian negligence to this effect, has also raised official objections, which have gone unheeded. However, there is a far more consequential role that Tehran, given its warm relations with Yerevan, could play and this mandates proactive involvement in fixing the issue, the unresolved long-term ecological implications of which are too hideous to contemplate.
Armenia has a proven track record of neglecting environmental standards by letting its mining industry treat the Araz River as a depository for waste and the worst of sludge. The heavy metal release from the enterprises based in Kafan and Kajaran, located in the southern part of the country, together with the discharge of sewage from these districts are key elements of the disastrous environmental situation on the ground. The flow of pollutants from the copper-molybdenum facility in Kajaran to the Okchuchay River and the gold deposit in Agarak to the Kharchevan, both rivers being tributaries of the Araz River, form another aspect of the bigger picture.
Over the years, this callous disregard for the environment has also been supported by egregious foreign companies. For instance, the German enterprise Cronimet is still very active in Armenia's mining industry, having its share in contributing to the life-threateningly high levels of copper, molybdenum, manganese, iron, zinc and chromium in the Okchuchay River.
Although the dire ecological situation caused by Armenia is an ongoing issue, it has assumed a heightened significance due to several developments. After the victory in the Second Karabakh War, Baku has resumed its effective control over the entire borders with Iran and Armenia, allowing it to conduct the necessary examination of water samples and to determine the current extent of this calamity.
Over the past three years, Iran has also raised its concerns without being able to achieve anything tangible, despite having good relations with and concomitant leverage with Yerevan. In November 2019, there was an attempt to address the issue through an intergovernmental working group, but nothing eventuated from its labours, which seem to have focused on the articulation of this concern, without going into any detailed practicalities.
In May, Iran's Chief Prosecutor, during his Yerevan sojourn, expounded on the criticality of the disaster and referred to a special joint committee tasked with addressing the matter. Then there was a meeting between the Ecology Ministers of the two countries within the framework of the 'Cooperation for a Better Ecology' conference, which also looked into the situation pertaining to the Araz River.
A few days ago, the head of the East Azerbaijan province of Iran, Abedin Khorram, in his meeting with Armenia's Ambassador to Iran Arsen Avakyan expressed his concerns.
Therefore, given this unfolding environmental crisis, Baku's augmented abilities to conduct its own research, by virtue of the resumption of control along the transboundary river's polluted segments, and increasingly disastrous implications for Iran, which Tehran, for all its desire not to upset relations with Yerevan cannot overlook, it seems the present juncture provides a nearly optimal critical mass for robust actions to be taken.
Armenia's mode of behaviour is not in conformity with the Convention "On the Protection and the Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes", otherwise known as the Water Convention, to which Yerevan refused to be a party over the years, unlike Azerbaijan, which ratified it in 2000.
Armenia has repeatedly and obstinately refused to change its practice of sending industrial waste originating in its heavy industry facilities to Okhcuchay and then to the Araz River. It has also failed to install water-treatment mechanisms, despite numerous sensible offers, one being from German Ambassador to Azerbaijan Wolfgang Manning a couple of years ago.
Ecology recognises no boundaries, but its ramifications impact the whole of our shared humanity. Experts in the field have long determined that river pollution is never circumscribed to its immediate locality, with its contaminating impact pervading a wider ecosystem.
Neil Watson, a well-known British journalist, commented: “This ecologically unfriendly approach flies in the face of reason and current international policies. The Armenian authorities and their supporters clearly believe in the ‘not in my backyard’ approach. However, a river represents our collective backyard, and the endangered humanity is our collective future.”
In fact, the pollution of the Araz River is not merely about its impact on drinking water or agriculture, but its devastating implication for fauna and flora and for human health leading to deadly diseases engendered by increased toxicity.
This is not just threatening for Azerbaijan or Iran, but also for the whole South Caucasus and even the Caspian Basin countries if one looks at the disaster's import from the guise of a long-term assessing ecologist. It is imperative that Iran plays an increased role in persuading Armenia to adopt the terms defining the basic environmental standards pertaining to transboundary waters.
The article published in Tehran Times in November 2019 suggested that the joint research conducted between Tabriz University and Iran's Ministry of Agriculture found that the river was polluted with heavy metals and established the presence of a deadly concentration of pollutants. Nevertheless, the information was not revealed to the public for diplomatic reasons.
The question that happens to be of the utmost significance now is whether Iran will rise above its excessive focus on diplomatic niceties and step in a genuinely robust way to address the issue endangering its and the region's eco-security.
As for Baku, three separate courses of actions could be pursued. The first is to encourage Tehran to be proactive in using its leverage vis-a-vis Yerevan. Secondly, it might be judicious to incorporate the dire ecological situation involving the Araz River into the nascent Azerbaijani-Armenian Peace Process, as an auxiliary item. Thirdly, however banal and cliched it may sound, there may also be some sense in further increasing international awareness of this calamity.
The cumulative impact of these concurrent tracks may have a better chance to have a bearing on the state of affairs. Iran must face up to the impact of its environmental decisions and act now, for the greater good of humankind.
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