The Ups and Downs of Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan is the largest body of water in the entire South Caucasus. It is a freshwater and alpine lake situated at an altitude of more than 1,900 meters (6,234 ft) and is vital for Armenia’s fishing, tourism (especially domestic), agriculture and other industries. Sevan covers 1,278 sq. km (493 sq. mi.) or 4.3% of Armenia’s total area, while the basin of Sevan is covered by the Gegharkunik region, home to 230,000 people (8% of the country’s total). The lake is fed by some 28 rivers and creeks. The heavily regulated Hrazdan River, which flows through central Armenia into the Arax River on the border with Turkey, is the only outlet from the lake. Since the early Soviet period, Sevan has seen dramatic changes in its water level and continued ecological problems stemming from these changes.


Draining (and Saving) the Lake

Since the early 1930s, Soviet authorities sought to exploit the lake to fulfil their ambitious plans for industrialization and modernization of agriculture. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Soviets built several hydropower plants (HPPs) on the Hrazdan River, the only outlet from Lake Sevan. Simultaneously, they began to build canals to irrigate the fertile Ararat plain, the heart of the country’s agriculture industry. When the draining of the lake commenced in 1933, the surface of the lake stood at around 1916 m above sea level and the lake’s volume was 58.5 cubic kilometers. Its maximum depth was 99 meters. From 1933 to 1949, the Soviets excavated the bed of the Hrazdan River and built a tunnel around 40 m under the lake’s surface to feed the hydro plants. Thereafter, the lake began to drop more than a meter annually. The famous island in Lake Sevan, where the prominent monastery Sevanavank stands, became a peninsula.

By the mid-1990s, the water level had decreased by around 19 meters and was subject to eutrophication, an increase in concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen and other plant nutrients.

To re-establish equilibrium and avoid the catastrophic fate of the Aral Sea, the Soviet Armenian government persuaded Moscow to build an expensive tunnel to divert the waters of the Arpa River (near Jermuk) to feed into Lake Sevan to prevent the further draining of the lake. Construction of the almost 50-km long Arpa-Sevan tunnel lasted almost two decades and was completed in 1981. Through the 1980s, the level stabilized around the 1897 m mark. In the 1990s, however, Sevan’s level began to drop again as hydropower output ramped in the wake of an energy blockade during the First Karabakh War. It was not until the 2000s, when the water level began to recover, standing at an all-time low of 1896 m.

In this month’s magazine issue, entitled “Water”, you can find articles on water security, the challenges of irrigation for Armenian farmers, the threat facing Lake Sevan and how water is the source of ancient Armenian traditions.

It has since gone up more than four meters, with most of the increase occurring between 2001 and 2011. The 2010s were a “lost decade” for Lake Sevan. Its water level has not exceeded 1901 m since the early 1960s, though it did reach 1900.91 in July 2017. As of July 2021, the lake is at 1900.75 m above sea level and has a volume of 38 cubic km.

The altitude of the surface of Lake Sevan between 1933 and 2021
(Source: Arpa-Sevan OJSC

In 2004, the Armenian government officially inaugurated the 22 km long Vorotan-Arpa tunnel, which intends to bring additional water (around 165 million cubic meters) from the Spandaryan Reservoir to Arpa (Kechut Reservoir), and from there to Lake Sevan. Its construction began in 1981, when the Arpa-Sevan tunnel was completed, but it has never operated.


Legislation, Stagnation and Potential Corruption Risks

The 2001 “Law on Lake Sevan” describes the lake as an “ecosystem of strategic importance” for its many uses. A December 2008 government decree officially set the goal of raising the surface of Sevan to the 1905 m mark (actually 1903.5 m, an additional 1.5 m is considered for waves). According to another 2001 law regulating other aspects of Lake Sevan, the maximum volume of water allowed to be drawn from the lake is set at 170 million cubic meters annually. However, the government (with parliamentary approval) can allow an additional amount of water to be released from the lake if the country (especially the Ararat plain) is experiencing drought. In 2017, for instance, the parliament voted to release an additional 100 million cubic meters, bringing the total to 270. Before that, both 2012 and 2014 also saw water balance deficits due to additional releases of water for irrigation. Meanwhile, the Arpa-Sevan tunnel was undergoing renovation for much of the 2010s. These two factors coupled together resulted in no significant increase in its surface levels since 2011.

There has been much speculation about why this happened. One widely suspected motivation could have been an attempt by the monied elites to save their waterfront mansions and other properties they have built on the shore of the lake in the past decades. Many former officials and politicians, such as former police chief Vladimir “Vova” Gasparyan, former MP and leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party Gagik Tsarukyan, former MP and Armenian Football Federation director Ruben Hayrapetyan, Sedrak Kocharyan, the son of former president Robert Kocharyan, Sasun Mikayelyan and others have properties under the 1905 m mark on Sevan’s shores, which makes them illegal. By not raising the surface level of Sevan, their properties were saved.

One explanation has been given for the extended maintenance works of the Arpa-Sevan tunnel. On the Yeghegis River, where the waters of Arpa were diverted during the renovation of the tunnel, some influential individuals own hydropower plants. Among them are the nephew of president Serzh Sargsyan, Archbishop Abraham Mkrtchyan of Vayots Dzor, the son of the financial control department of the Central Bank and the son-in-law of former prime minister Tigran Sargsyan.

A criminal probe is warranted to assess how conflict of interest could have undermined the proper conservation of the environment.


Continued Environmental Problems

Sevan has seen “blooming” since 2018. It was, in fact, an algae bloom, which according to the Environment Ministry, had first occurred in 1964. The ministry identified several causes, most notably the discharge of untreated wastewater from nearby settlements, including household sewage, agricultural waste and waste from the numerous resorts, hotels and restaurants. Other causes include overfishing, the presence of organic matter in the coastal areas where planted forests have come under water, high temperature and climate change, low precipitation, and intense winds. A recent study by a group of experts noted that their “observations mark the transition of this previously oligotrophic high mountain lake into a eutrophic lake with scum-forming cyanobacterial blooms.”

Back in July 2019, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s chief of staff Eduard Aghajanyan said that the government plans to consider building biological waste treatment stations in three cities in the Sevan basin: Gavar, Martuni and Vardenis. Experts such as Gor Gevorgyan of the Armenian Academy of Sciences and Karsten Rinke of Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research agree that biological waste treatment is vital for saving the lake from further degradation and repeated algae blooms. According to water resources specialist Knarik Hovhannisyan, out of the 400 establishments on the coastal areas of the lake, only 14 treat their wastewater. So far, the Pashinyan government has not made any concrete steps in this direction, citing lack of funds.