During the several trips we have made to the Meghri region – down, way down, three mountain ranges away from the nearest city, at the southern edge of Armenia on the border with Iran – we have come to know the road (and the potholes) by heart. We have worked with the disenchanted Alvank community and the longtime mayor of Shvanidzor to complete our project, that is: to ameliorate the water supply situation in these two remote borderland villages.
The project is part of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s Rural Development Program. They, together with the Iranian-Armenian community, support this project. The idea behind our efforts is to create a self-sufficient, self-propagating water management system for the communities of Alvank and Shvanidzor, controlled and maintained by those communities, and thus resulting in the acquired local governance experience we desire.
Teaching them how to fish
For the purpose of technical maintenance and organization, with the help of members of the Armenian community in Iran who are co-sponsoring this project, chahriz experts were invited to assess the conditions of the waterways. The leader of the group is an Armenian-Iranian architect, and the other three members are Iranian experts.
The experts were brought in during a major visit by the Tehran-based leadership of the Iranian-Armenian community. At the same time, Vartan Oskanian, Chairman of the Board of the Civilitas Foundation and Civilitas staff also visited the region, which took place in May. All those involved in this project were able to meet with the selected communities and had a hands-on experience in regard to what is being dealt with and what it takes to ensure a safe and reliable water supply in the area.
In order to ensure that the conversations with the village residents and leadership are solid and ongoing, we met with and consulted different organizations that are involved in result-oriented community mobilization activities within Armenia, and which have the relevant experience in this field. After several meetings and a couple of joint trips to the region, we signed a contract with ‘Partnership and Teaching’, an organization based in the city of Goris just a couple of hours drive away from Meghri. They not only have the gained experience in this field but also have already organized several meetings in the communities with which we work.
The strategy of mobilizing the people there involved beginning with small gatherings of key groups, such as the administrative leadership, the elders, the school board and the younger generation. The idea was to organize the communities incrementally such that, over time, groups of interested and active people could come together in order to work for the community as a whole, both in carrying out the necessary activities and in dealing with the rest of the community and their leadership.
Two Villages, More Than One Challenge
These two rural communities differ in their characteristics, and each proffers its own unique challenges.
Alvank is a village populated by Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. We knew right from the start that dealing with this community would not be an easy task as these are people displaced and stripped from everything they once had. During the past two decades, efforts to form a true community were never a priority, and it really is hard to blame them for their apathy, given their situation. With the many issues they have had to overcome, from housing to nutrition to work – all harsh realities of refugee life – there was never any real desire or inclination for community-oriented service. To top it off, most of them had never seen a chahriz, did not understand how it functioned, were not aware that those wells and tunnels were their source of water, and nor could imagine that they somehow shared a responsibility for maintaining their operation.
And so it has been particularly difficult to truly engage the people of Alvank. We carried out presentations of the project and discussed the proposals made at group meetings, after which we tried to organize elections for a local water management board. This board would be comprised of active members of the community – acting as a responsible and responsive link between the community administration and community members in helping to clean and maintain the chahriz.
However, this continues to be an uphill struggle given the factions within this small community, but after many weeks and constant encouragement we have seen some signs of a positive shift toward our intended direction.
Shvanidzor, on the other hand, is one of the oldest communities in Armenia, with two centuries-old churches. It’s so old that its “new” church dates from the 17th century. The people there are much better-organized and are well-aware of their chahrizes and the important role they play. Community meetings there have also been regular and we were able to build upon an already-registered organization. Our work helped in organizing new leadership and in providing some direction for that body. In addition, they had understood from their previous non-effective maintenance efforts that truly organized and coordinated maintenance really is the only way to guarantee a healthy and steady water supply.
The Storm Before the Calm
These are among the last examples of chahriz systems left in Armenia, but they remain widespread throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Possibly everywhere with climate change, and here certainly, there is a very severe water shortage problem. The amount of water is decreasing every year. With the passing of every season, especially as we face summer, it becomes more apparent that the chahrizes bring less and less water.
In June, very heavy rains hit Shvanidzor especially hard. Roads, fields, irrigation pipes, orchards, roofs, buildings and even chahrizes were not left untouched. All in all, around 33 million Drams in damage was evaluated (around 90,000 US Dollars).
As for Alvank, the impact of the rain is serving as a sort of rallying point for the community. For, even though a clean-up day was already in the pipeline, the heavier damage has called for a larger-scale of work. This is a first-time community-wide effort and will thus serve as a test for their self-organization, apart from actually remedying some of the damage.
The Iranian experts spent 10 days in Shvanidzor where the chahriz system was in relatively good condition, that is, prior to the torrential rains. They then moved on to Alvank where they remained for another month and are still there for a few more weeks.
As a result, the creation of a Water Management Board has brought the Alvank community and community leader into a closer and more supportive relationship. Therefore, aside from creating water management awareness, there is a new sense of a community on the way toward greater consensus and an enhanced sense of both communal partnership and local ownership of the community’s own infrastructure.
Success in strengthening these boards could ideally serve to make them models for all such communities throughout Armenia in the near future.