The Kura-Araks has united individuals living across the South Caucasus for centuries, providing a lifeline to communities on either side of human borders. However the interests of each nation often clash, leaving many issues, like water contamination, unaddressed. Neglected, daily life grows bleaker by the day for those whose livelihoods depend on the waters. This story follows the visual connections between the lives of those living along both rivers, documenting their struggle and resilience.
This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the authors and not Chai-Khana.
Fishermen get up early in Sabirabad. Long before the sun rises, a small army of men takes to the water, their sun-charred skin blending with the dim light, their chiseled hands throwing nets up in the air and down into the suqovuşan, a confluence of waters. Here in southern Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus’ mighty rivers, the Kura and the Araks, wed and become one.
Locals call the combined river “Mother Kur” since it nurtures the land. But throughout the Caucasus, that nurturing role is often forgotten.
Rivers know no borders, yet, as elsewhere in the world, locals have drawn frontiers along the Kura and Araks Rivers, overused their water, often contaminated them or entangled them in conflict. As a result, cooperation on how to manage this vast cross-boundary water basin is close to non-existent. It’s a situation that benefits no one.
Embracing the whole South Caucasus, the Kura-Araks basin is both a servant and a breathtaking marvel for the millions who live along its shores. Both rivers originate in Turkey and flow eastward. To the north, the Kura runs for 1,515 kilometers through Georgia and into Azerbaijan where it merges with the Araks before tapering off into the Caspian Sea.
The Araks flows south for 1,072 kilometers, carving out a natural border for most of its length between Turkey and Armenia and, then, between Armenia and Iran and Iran and Azerbaijan. Along the way, thousands of tributaries feed a watershed of over 123,000 square kilometers. It is not always a placid journey. Competition for water has long been a trigger for conflict, but in a conflict-ridden region like the Caucasus, the problem is even more acute.
During Soviet times, water management fell under a central policy designed by the Kremlin. It was an absurdly identical policy across the gargantuan country; bilateral agreements were signed with both Turkey and Iran that provided equal access to the Araks River. General surface-water quality standards were put in place in the 1960s, but there were no specific guidelines or management practices on how to control the sources of pollution and monitor water quality.
When the USSR broke apart in 1991, the 15 independent countries that emerged inherited this lack of regulation. Scrambling to set up state institutions from scratch and manage everything from telephone codes to new currencies, they had little time or thought left for water management. Too often, division trumped cooperation.
In the early 1990s, brutal territorial conflicts tore apart all three of the South Caucasus’ countries. They affected the Kura and Araks Rivers as well. The start of full-scale war in 1991 over Nagorno Karabakh , for instance, put paid to any chance for cooperation on water-management between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani ally Turkey. Waste from centers for the displaced near the rivers added further to the problem.
A cross stands in the village of Bagaran, looking towards the minaret of a mosque of Halikislak, the Turkish village on the other side of the closed border between Turkey and Armenia. The two settlements lie a few hundred meters away, yet they are two different worlds. Only the Akhuryan River separates them, but the border has been closed for decades and the only way to cross the waterway is via a rudimentary cable platform, which is used rarely, and exclusively by officials of both sides in case of border disputes.
Araks is just one of the many villages named after the river flowing along the Turkish border. The settlement, set up in the 1940s, when the Soviet authorities established a large state farm, suffers from a chronic shortage of water and many residents pump water for their household use and for their animals from the Akhouryan River, a tributary, and collect it in a cistern. The water quality is poor, but so are the residents who cannot afford to buy cleaner water.
Trains used to connect this hamlet of Meghri to Yerevan, the railway line running parallel to the Araks for a few kilometres as the river bed lies on the other side of the border with Iran. The railway was built during the Soviet era. Train cars travelled north via the Azerbaijani territory of Nakhchivan, but amidst the conflict over the region of Nagorno Karabakh, as the USSR disintegrated, Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia. It remains sealed as the countries are still formally at war. The railway fell into disuse, cutting the municipality’s lifeline and increasing its isolation.
A town of 4,000, Horadiz sits at the administrative boundary with Nagorno Karabakh and the Araks River, which marks the border with Iran. Much of the town was reduced to rubble during the conflict in the 1990s and the bridge over the Araks was destroyed by shelling. Human Rights Watch reported that fleeing Azerbaijanis swam across the river to escape the fighting, and many drowned. Today, most of the town’s population is comprised of people displaced from the region. A large portrait of President Heydar Aliyev sits a top a hill facing the Iranian border.
The two villages, a few kilometers apart, sit by the point where the Araks flows from Iran into Azerbaijan. Cotton, the country’s white gold, is a key crop for the local economy and a large irrigation system was developed in Soviet times. After years of neglect, the government is now reviving the production of cotton. The photo below shows a border patrol on the Azerbaijani side of the border with Iran.
The area around the two neighboring villages in southern Azerbaijan, Saatli and Imishli, is semi-desert and very dry. Farming, however, is key and cotton production is increasing. The district was among those hit by destructive floods in 2010 as heavy rains pushed the Kura outside the river bed. The floods resulted in thousands of displaced people, hundreds of houses destroyed, devastated plantations and five dead.
Today, there is still no accord on transboundary water management among all the countries lying in the Kura-Araks basin. Only a few bilateral agreements exist. Each country has a national water code in line with international guidelines, but experts note that river pollution has increased, primarily as a result of untreated sewage and industrial waste from mines, factories and processing plants. Agriculture poses another problem. Across the whole region irrigation canals are highly inefficient and in Azerbaijan for example crops like cotton require large amounts of water and pesticides. Thirsty cities further contribute to declining water levels.
High use of water means that the basin’s smaller tributaries no longer reach the Kura. Instead, they disappear into the plains. Two huge reservoirs, in Mingachevir and Shamkir, jail the Kura’s waters. The river’s level drops after flowing into Shamkir. International organizations, ranging from the European Union and NATO to the United Nations Development Programme and the US Agency for International Development , have tried to fill in the gap left by politics believing that technical cooperation on water also had a peacebuilding potential. They have funded various projects to protect the Kura-Araks, but to no avail. Governments blame each other for the contamination.
Some citizens of Kura-Araks countries, however, have indicated a willingness to cooperate on water-related issues. In one 2005 survey, 30 water-resource managers, researchers and officials acknowledged that this cooperation could, in fact, lead to peace in the region and improve social welfare. But without a way to turn that acknowledgement into action, the damage continues.
In Azerbaijan, as the sun rises over the suqovuşan, the fishermen head home. Around them, fluffy cotton dots the land, sucking up Mother Kür’s precious water -- or what remains of it down in the lowlands.
The lack of opportunities means that many mountain villages have known a steady depopulation over the years. Akhaldaba, in southern Georgia, is one of them and is home to about 900 people. The village, however, is on the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line, which was officially launched in 2017 and is part of the China-initiated New Silk Road project. It aims at boosting foreign investment and developing economic relations between Asia and Europe.
A rich agricultural city in the antiquity, Urbnisi, was destroyed by the Arabs in the 8th century. Today it is a tiny village, mainly known for the monastery of St. Stephen, an important centre of the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. In 1977, the then-Soviet authorities built a long bridge over the Mktvari, to connect the settlement to the railway station in Skra, on the opposite bank, and reduce the village isolation. Till then, residents had to rely onto a ferry connecting the two banks.
The village in central Georgia sits by the Kura, which provides essential water for its 1,300 people who are mostly small farmers. The village suffers from regular flooding in spring - every May the river deluges half of the settlement located on the banks. Residents and local authorities have been calling for structural intervention to reinforce the embankment and prevent the river to overflow its bed every spring, but to no avail. Skra is also home to displaced Georgians who fled South Ossetia in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
A village of a few hundred, Uplistsikhe is a renowned touristic site for its ancient rock-hewn town which dates back to as early as the second millenium BC. The Mktvari runs through the village, separating today’s settlement from the archeological site.
Grakali, a few kilometres from Tbilisi, is located close to the Mktvari and its soil is too damp for farming. Most of the families living here stay on as they cannot afford to move to the capital.
Built in 1953 on a section of the Kura river flowing through Mount Bozdag, the Mingachevir reservoir is the Caucasus’ largest. The reservoir, measuring 70 kilometres in length, is a key water supply water for agriculture in the region. The city is dubbed the “city of lights” after the hydropower plant on the reservoir which is the biggest in Azerbaijan. A toilet of the old Soviet touristic residence. Hotels like this one were turned into collective centres for internally displaced families fleeing from Nagorno Karabakh. Two long-time IDPs (pictured below) who reside in the neglected former Soviet hotel turned shelter. As the conflict remains unresolved, the temporary accommodation has become a long-term housing facility.
After a journey embracing the whole of South Caucasus, the Kura and the Araks merge in Sabirabad - locals call it suqovuşan or qovşaq, meaning confluence of waters in Azeri. At some points the two rivers do not mix and run side by side, a phenomenon which is due to their differences in temperature, speed, and water.
The Kura drains into the Caspian Sea by this town of 20,000, south of Baku. Neftchala comes from the words “neft” and “chala” meaning oil and hole in Azeri, and the oil industry has been key to the region’s economy. The first oil well was drilled in 1872 and the horizon remains dotted with drilling turrets, although today agriculture and fishing are the main economic drivers.
Note: Both the Kura and the Araks bear different names in each country through which each river flows. In Georgia, the Kura is called the Mtkvari and, in Azerbaijan, the Kür. In Armenia, the Araks’ name does not change, but in Azerbaijan and Iran it is called the Araz. This report opted for the rivers’ internationally recognized names of Kura and Araks.
A special thank you to ForSet for their design work.