Environmental Problems

Environmental Problems

A broad public discussion of environmental problems began in the mid-1980s, when the first "green" groups formed in opposition to Erevan's intense industrial air pollution and to nuclear power generation in the wake of the 1986 reactor explosion at Chernobyl'. Environmental issues helped form the basis of the nationalist independence movement when environmental demonstrations subsequently merged with those for other political causes in the late 1980s.

In the postcommunist era, Armenia faces the same massive environmental cleanup that confronts the other former Soviet republics as they emerge from the centralized planning system's disastrous approach to resource management. By 1980 the infrequency of sightings of Mount Ararat, which looms about sixty kilometers across the Turkish border, became a symbol of worsening air pollution in Erevan.

In independent Armenia, environmental issues divide society (and scientists) sharply into those who fear "environmental time bombs" and those who view resumption of pollution-prone industrial operations as the only means of improving the country's economy. In the early 1990s, the latter group blamed Armenia's economic woes on the role played by the former in closing major industries.

In 1994 three national environmental laws were in effect: the Law on Environmental Protection, the Basic Law on the Environment, and the Law on Mineral Resources. The Council of Ministers, Armenia's cabinet, includes a minister of the environment. However, no comprehensive environmental protection program has emerged, and decisions on environmental policy have been made on an ad hoc basis.

Environmental conditions in Armenia have been worsened by the Azerbaijani blockade of supplies and electricity from outside. Under blockade conditions, the winters of 1991-92, 1992-93, and 1993-94 brought enormous hardship to a population lacking heat and electric power. (The large-scale felling of trees for fuel during the winters of the blockade has created another environmental crisis.) The results of the blockade and the failure of diplomatic efforts to lift it led the government to propose reconstruction of the Armenian Atomic Power Station at Metsamor, which was closed after the 1988 earthquake because of its location in an earthquake-prone area and which had the same safety problems as reactors listed as dangerous in Bulgaria, Russia, and Slovakia. After heated debates over startup continued through 1993, French and Russian nuclear consultants declared operating conditions basically safe. Continuation of the blockade into 1994 gave added urgency to the decision.

Another environmental concern is a significant drop in Lake Sevan's water level because of drawdowns for irrigation and the diversion of water to hydroelectric plants to compensate for the electric power lost through the inactivity of the nuclear plant at Metsamor. This crisis was addressed in 1992-93 by construction of a tunnel to divert water into the lake from the Arpa River. Engineers estimated that once the project is finished, the tunnel will allow 500 million cubic meters of water to be drawn from the lake annually, while maintaining a constant water level. The Ministry of the Environment reported that the lake's water level had dropped by fifty centimeters in 1993. Experts said that this drop brought the level to within twenty-seven centimeters of the critical point where flora and fauna would be endangered.

Among major industrial centers closed to curtail pollution were the Nairit Chemical Plant, the Alaverdy Metallurgical Plant, and the Vanadzor Chemical Combine. Economic requirements triumphed over environmental considerations when the Soviet-era Nairit plant was reopened in January 1992 after being closed in 1989 because of the massive air pollution it caused. Newly independent Armenia needed the income from foreign sales of Nairit rubber and chemical products, many of which had been assigned exclusively to that plant under the Soviet system and were still unavailable elsewhere to the former Soviet republics in the early 1990s. Up-to-date environmental safety technology and adherence to international standards were promised at Nairit when the decision to resume production was announced.

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