The village of Banka in Azerbaijan should have plentiful supplies of water as it lies beside one of the country’s mightiest rivers, the Kura.
However, the river has shallowed dramatically this summer and has become contaminated with salty seawater, in what experts warn is an unfolding ecological disaster.
“Our animals are dying. We don’t get water in time,” said farmer Maryam Hasanova, as she waited for a truck to deliver water.
Residents in two southern regions have suffered acute water shortages for months, and people like Hasanova — who have small holdings with crops and cattle — have been particularly affected.
Wide expanses of cracked gray silt can be seen above the waterline of the river near the village.
“The drop in water levels in the Kura this summer is unprecedented,” reaching nearly 2 meters in some regions, Institute of Geology Director Ramiz Mammadov said in Baku, the capital.
“Kura’s riverbed is a frightening sight,” he said.
“This is an ecological disaster,” said Telman Zeynalov, the head of Azerbaijan’s Centre for Ecological Forecasting.
Originating in northeastern Turkey, the 1,515km river flows through Georgia and Azerbaijan into the Caspian Sea, playing a major role in the ecosystem of the entire Caucasus region.
Close to the delta where Banka is located, the river’s current has slowed down so much that saltwater from the Caspian is flowing upstream.
“We can’t use it, nor can we use it for animals to drink,” said Famil Akhmedov, a local pensioner in his 80s. “We’re in a terrible state.”
A communal water tank stands in the village street of one-story houses waiting to be filled by deliveries from a truck.
However, Hasanova complained that the amount of water delivered by the authorities was far less than the villagers’ real needs.
Some villagers were filling plastic bottles with murky water directly from the river, despite the saltwater contamination.
Residents are angry about the government’s apparent indifference to their plight.
People are “suffering from water shortages and the local authorities are refusing to listen to our complaints,” Famil Hasanov said.
Global warming is a factor in the rapidly worsening crisis, Mammadov said, since Azerbaijan has seen a 30 percent decrease in rainfall over the last decade.
“This problem isn’t anything new. We are witnessing similar issues in arid regions around the globe,” he said.
Uncontrolled and unregulated use of water for agriculture is exacerbating the crisis, he added.
“The number of new farms and fish farms along the river is constantly growing, leading to excessive water use,” he said. “There are water pumps everywhere you look.”
Another factor might be a vast reservoir called Mingachevir dammed off in the river close to the Georgian border and used to power Azerbaijan’s largest hydroelectric plant, Zeynalov said.
More research was needed into its use of water, he said.
Mammadov said Azerbaijan’s limited water resources can only be enough for everyone if it is used prudently.
In April, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev issued a decree on the “rational” use of water resources and set up a governmental commission tasked with restoring the Kura’s water levels.
Mammadov said the commission has drafted long-overdue guidelines that are essential for addressing the crisis.
“The problem can be resolved if there is political will and if we stop abusing nature,” he said.
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