Armenians address water vulnerabilities head-on


By Jamie Carson and Elisabeth Hutchison

Armenia’s Ararat Valley, a 1,177 square-kilometer swath of land located to the east of Mount Ararat, is home to critical artesian aquifers and central to the country’s economic stability. The aquifers are a frequently tapped resource for public services, agriculture, and fish farming, as well as cooling of Armenia’s nuclear power plant. Yet the valley is also highly vulnerable to climate change and has experienced hotter, drier summers for the past 60 years.

USAID/Armenia, through its Advanced Science and Partnerships for Integrated Resources Development (ASPIRED) project, has helped prioritize Armenia’s national goal to protect the country’s artesian aquifers, which are subject to water stress challenges that exist throughout the country.

Nationwide, Armenia’s climate trends are worsening: by 2050, the country is expected to warm by 1.6-2.2 degrees Celsius relative to the annual average temperatures experienced over the past 30 years. Precipitation is expected to become more variable with more consecutive dry days, stronger storms, and drier summers. The situation is taxing the country’s water resource management, and 70 percent of Armenia is already under water stress. For example, ASPIRED identified reduced water availability and crop yields as climate risks for the agricultural sector in the Ararat Valley.

CRM has been critical to ASPIRED's successes, helping guide decisions and actions that account for climate context. Notably, USAID/Armenia has been implementing components of CRM to design forward-thinking projects—including ASPIRED—even prior to USAID’s initiation of its CRM policy in 2016 to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of efforts.

Predating the CRM policy, USAID/Armenia and ASPIRED took climate risk management actions to develop water vulnerability solutions. This early example of climate risk management in Armenia exemplifies the value of the CRM process throughout USAID, said Marina Vardanyan, USAID Armenia’s Energy and Water Advisor and Mission Environmental Officer.

Climate Risk Management

Rigorous climate risk analysis conducted at the outset of the project identified increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation as significant risks in Armenia. Additionally, water permit non-compliance and excessive groundwater extraction, as well as poor regulation of permit issuance for fish farms have compounded the already fragile water resource. To help track and manage these challenges, ASPIRED prioritized the development of regulatory support for the Government of Armenia and has assisted them in establishing data collection systems and decision making tools. The Armenia State Water Cadastre, for example, maintains a comprehensive national data system that provides information to decision makers on water quality, quantity, and use. ASPIRED has also trained a wide range of stakeholders, including government representatives and academia, on the application of decision-support systems for sustainable management of water resources.

With ASPIRED’s support, the Government of Armenia Ministry of Environment established a working group to coordinate water resource management solutions and assess risks compounded by climate change in the Ararat Valley. Through its climate risk analysis, ASPIRED identified two water vulnerability stressors: water permit noncompliance and incidents of groundwater abstraction over allowable levels. In search of solutions, the Government of Armenia assembled a cross-sectoral working group with a diverse understanding of the stressors. Participants represented agricultural operations, fish farms, the national nuclear energy plant, and water regulatory authorities. The working group encouraged the government to adopt the Programme of Measures for Effective Management of Water Resources, which defines groundwater management targets in the Ararat Valley and identifies measures to be undertaken by government agencies to conserve Armenia’s strategic groundwater resources. These actions, from the development of decision-support tools to the establishment of the working group, have helped improve water permit compliance and reduce groundwater abstraction.

Overall, ASPIRED identified and incorporated several measures to manage climate risk, address the high demand for water services in the Ararat Valley, and help achieve project objectives. These measures included:

  • Analyzing baseline conditions for sustainable use and replenishment (e.g., recharge rate and sustainable yield) of the groundwater basin; 

  • Inventorying groundwater wells, fish farms, and natural springs; 

  • Customizing a decision-support system for assessing water systems, climate impacts, and adaptation measures; and 

  • Piloting water-saving, reuse, and energy efficiency technologies in select communities (i.e., adaptation options).

Through these measures, ASPIRED is advancing USAID/Armenia’s effort to increase the quality and affordability of water services, which are critical in addressing the changing climate’s impact on water management. The project’s water-savings measures have cascading benefits both in the Ararat Valley and nationally, though the value of these effects have not been quantifiably estimated. Due to the installation of water-saving technology, industries using the aquifer will experience reduced water use costs and potential for shortages. For example, in the ASPIRED beneficiary community, Aratashen, efficient pumps for drinking water were installed and system losses were fully eliminated. ASPIRED also optimized the use of free-flowing groundwater wells in the Ararat Valley that are used by local communities for irrigation purposes. Additionally, the implementation of compliance actions promoted through ASPIRED partnerships has contributed to government authorities reporting more efficient management of water permitting.

Partners in Action

Balabek Sargsyan, Mayor of Hayanist, a small community in the Ararat Valley, has seen how the water stress has strained the local economy, challenging the irrigation network that is vital to regional agriculture, fish farms, and watershed management.  

"Every piece of land is valuable in the Ararat Valley,” Sargsyan said. “There has been no irrigation water or irrigation network in Hayanist village for the last 15 to 20 years causing farmlands to gradually degrade.”

To address the agricultural challenges in Hayanist, the ASPIRED team initiated a pilot project in collaboration with Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company Armenia. Together, the partnership supported the construction of a new irrigation system that redirected water from the nearby Lablajyan Brothers fish farm to efficiently irrigate surrounding community farmland. As a result, 40 hectares of farmland has access to reliable, nutrient-rich water which was previously going to waste.

After the ASPIRED team led construction of the irrigation network, the Hayanist community assumed ownership and maintenance responsibilities, engaging 2,046 residents and 85 households. Ultimately, the collaboration has reduced the community’s reliance on artesian water for irrigation and has reduced soil degradation, yielding 1.1 million cubic meters of groundwater savings annually. The nearby Sayat-Nova community up-scaled Hayanist’s model and adopted this same technology to irrigate nearly 190 hectares of farmland, in collaboration with the former Partnership for Rural Prosperity, which sought to address economic challenges in rural communities, and the Fund for Armenian Relief, an Armenian-diasporan organization focused on education, child protection, economic development, healthcare and social services. As a result, 2,400 residents and 98 households have access to irrigation water and 1.92 million cubic meters of groundwater is saved annually.

The amount of water saved annually in Hayanist and Sayat-Nova, Armenia, is equal to the amount of water used by 24,286 people to carry out daily household activities for an entire year.

“Thanks to our donors, we built a new irrigation network, installed valve boxes and individual connections, so that everyone can irrigate his own land plot,” Mayor Sargsyan said.

Many ASPIRED successes resulted from partnerships with the private sector and government in which CRM played an important role. Examples include strengthened water monitoring and management systems that improve water quality and quantity for the public. The ASPIRED team also has noted increased coordination and engagement among stakeholders that has led to shared ownership of at-risk water resources and opened the door for future water conservation collaborations.

“These ASPIRED resources, including irrigation networks, decision-support tools, water-saving technologies and more, will stay with the government and those making decisions on water allocation in the future,” Vardanyan said. “We’re providing training with each pilot so communities and the private sector can replicate the model and scale it up.”

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