The following is a guest essay from Eric Pallant, professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and codirector of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Integrated Water Resources Management. He is reporting from the National Disasters and Water Security conference in Yerevan, Armenia.


eric_pallantOctober 19, 2007

I have to hand it to NATO for dishing out money to sponsor Advanced Research Workshops on environmental security. And I must congratulate Armenia for organizing Natural Disasters and Water Security: Risk Assessment, Emergency Response, and Environmental Management. It shows recognition on the part of both parties that security involves more than advanced weaponry. Conference Director Dr. Trahel Vardanian, in a wide-wale pinstripe suit, does not speak English — but he must have realized how valuable it would be to host this international meeting. Armenia is a country in transition.

At street level, it seems as if half the city is torn asunder by cranes and bulldozers busily replacing the old Soviet cement-block architecture with sparkling new parks, scalloped stone boulevards, broad-windowed import shops, and new Armenian cement-block high-rises. I see 30-year-old Soviet Ladas and glossy new Nissans side-by-side. Young women in tight jeans and heels, gossiping in Armenian, skitter past old women in babushkas and heavy grey sweaters. Their grandmothers are still selling sunflower seeds on the sidewalk.

bread
Yerevan woman selling bread on the street. (Photo: Eric Pallant)

Inside the conference hall, speaker after speaker rises to describe the challenges of recovering from decades of Soviet environmental spite. Industrial dumping in the Belgograd area of Russia released 200 million cubic meters of sewage and 30 million cubic meters of industrial pollution every year. In the steep mountain slopes of the Republic of Georgia (one of the South Caucus nations), the Russian border closure and the consequent overgrazing of sheep on the Georgia side has created an environmental disaster of extraordinary proportions. Over the last 30 years, earthquakes, mudflows, landslides, and floods combined with unrestricted development in danger-prone locations has claimed the lives of 35,000 Georgians. More than 150,000 have been forced to resettle in safer regions. A flood in 1987, resulting from rapid melting of glaciers and breakouts from glacial lakes, caused $300,000,000 of damage.

But there are also indications that the catastrophes wrought by the Soviet system are under the same kind of assault as their buildings in downtown Yerevan. Yusup Kamalov, Chairman of UDASA (Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and Amudarya), handed me his first English-language newsletter. He’s proud to report that his NGO has been forbidden to operate by the government of Uzbekistan for the last six months, which at the current time makes him chairman of nothing. But he’s here describing a spirited campaign to restore the Aral Sea through a combination of proposed international agreements to pay upstream riparians to protect the watershed, and public education to modify wasteful agricultural practices.

hrazdan river
The Hrazdan River flows through the center of Yerevan, the capitol of Armenia. (Photo: Eric Pallant)

A few western Europeans in attendance have made it clear that some of the water problems in the Caucuses are caused by first-world countries. Buying a cotton shirt in Amsterdam requires 2,500 liters of water to grow the cotton in the Aral basin. In fact, according to Arjen Hoekstra (University of Twente), 80 percent of The Netherlands’ water footprint is externalized. The Dutch are importing virtual water in the same way they purchase oil: embodied in the manufacture of imported products and foods grown overseas. See waterfootprint.org for more.

It seems appropriate that the conference is being held on the second floor of our hotel, a transitional floor between too high and too low. After some of the presentations, I’m so depressed that I’m ready to leap out the window: I’ll feel the impact, but I won’t die.