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Georgia: Access to water is closely interconnected with the rights of national minorities

20 June 2023

As in the rest of the world, water plays an important role in the daily life of national minorities in the Kvemo Kartli (Borchali) region of Georgia. The main minority population in the region is ethnic Azerbaijanis, who in some areas of the region make up more than 80 per cent of the population. The region is also inhabited by environmentally displaced people resettled from elsewhere in Georgia. Other small minority communities include ethnic Armenians and Greeks. Agriculture is what sustains the livelihoods of many of these communities. An equally important aspect is access to safe drinking water for personal or household needs. Thus, it is safe to say that access to water for agriculture and daily water use go hand in hand with the implementation of the rights and freedoms of national minorities. Water availability directly affects the economic stability of Georgia’s Azerbaijani community.  

This stability is directly related to the resilience of communities and village life in terms of ensuring food security both in the region and in the country as a whole. Food insecurity caused by water shortages has led to forced migration; indeed, national minorities have begun to emigrate en masse to other countries. When water was available and access to it was not regulated, 90 per cent of the country’s agricultural crops came from the Borchali region. Since the 1990’s, water-related policies advanced by the central and regional authorities have led to wide-scale privatization of land and water in the region. As a result of aggressive policies and expropriation, local farming communities have been losing their plots of land, pastures for livestock and, of course, water resources. The Azerbaijani community has decreased to less than 200,000 people (official statistics give us a figure of 233,000), from a total of 600,000 recorded 25 years ago. 

The way water is being distributed shows systemic problems that lead to massive violations of the rights and freedoms of national minorities.

Every year, from May to September, the region of Kvemo Kartli is riddled with thirst. Agricultural lands belonging to minority farmers suffer from severe water shortages. A number of human rights activists have argued in recent years that the supply of irrigation water is regulated on a residual basis, which means that official water-governance policy in the region is guided by a discriminatory practice, according to which water is given to representatives of the titular nation. Only if there is enough water left do the villages inhabited by national minorities receive water. Human rights activists argue that this policy is an indirect way of squeezing ethnic minorities out of the region.  

Asad Aliyev, a human rights activist from the village of Gachagan, notes that from 1995 to 2022 the problem of water access has been acute. He explains:  

The main income of the population of our village and the entire Marneuli region come from agricultural products. Lack of water makes thousands of hectares of arable land unsuitable for farming. There are certain forces in the region that want this situation to continue, especially representatives of the church clan from the Khujabi diocese. People who took out loans to cultivate the land became bankrupt and were forced to sell or return the leased land at half price, which forced many to leave their farms. 

Human rights activist Samira Bayramova points out:  

Most of the problems in our municipalities are caused by humans, not climate change, and are associated with a number of interrelated factors. One of the factors is the unfair distribution of the local budget in municipalities according to priorities. Another factor is the lack of special skills of Sakrebulo [Municipal Council] members and employees in the local self-government system. 

Bayramova adds:  

The existence of local clans also hinders the solution of social problems. Large tracts of land in many villages are illegally in the hands of officials. They do not allow small entrepreneurs to irrigate their small plots of land. If we compare villages and communities where national minorities and the titular nation live, then we observe an unequal social environment, especially in municipalities. Accordingly, the main cause of socio-economic problems in the villages is the unequal distribution of public money. Only recently, we won a case on unfair distribution of the budget.

Over the past 10 years, more than 50 demonstrations have been staged by local residents both in the village squares and in front of municipal buildings throughout the region, as well as in other regions densely populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Hundreds and even thousands of written appeals, public speeches at all levels, appeals to human rights organizations, especially before local municipal and central elections, have been presented. Before the Marneuli self-government elections in 2021, one of the promises made by mayoral candidate Zaur Dargally was to provide villages with drinking water. The promise did not include access to irrigation water. Dargally promised to provide drinking water to the residents of ethnic minority villages, yet the villages experienced severe drought during the summer of 2022. 

Residents of Dashtepe village in Marneuli municipality held ongoing protests, both in the centre of the village and in front of the municipality building, over the issue of lack of irrigation water. According to residents, within three or four days of the start of the action, a certain amount of water was given to villagers. However, the same problem recurs. According to residents, a water canal near the village of Imir was destroyed, yet the Marneuli municipality is not interested in repairing water infrastructure and does not want, or have the capacity, to do anything in this regard. According to the villagers, due to the lack of irrigation water, plants cultivated by them in 2022 were burned by the sun, and entire crops were destroyed. 

A resident of the village of Gachagan, Nasimi Aliyev, tried to influence this deplorable practice through participation in local authority elections, but to no avail. Aliyev gives a picture of what is happening as a purposeful and conscious action by the authorities:

The villagers gathered in the centre and held a protest action in connection with the problem of drinking and irrigation water. There is no irrigation water in the village, so they cannot water their crops. Residents say the corn, tobacco, watermelons and other crops are being destroyed due to the drought. Residents say that the authorities came to the village before the parliamentary elections and promised to address the crisis, but the problem has not yet been solved.

Alibala Askerov, who has been dealing with the rights and freedoms of ethnic minorities in the region for more than three decades, notes that:  

[T]here is a vicious practice of restricting equal access to water. After all, there used to be a lot more population, and traditional water distribution schemes worked well. Today we see that there is a major reduction in the volume of water in our rivers and lakes, and against the backdrop of climate change, the plight of the Azerbaijani community in Georgia is becoming hopeless. Dozens more villages are likely to hold protests this coming summer. But the problem of thirst is not likely to go away … 

Activists hope that water governance in Kvemo Kartli will be reconsidered from a human rights perspective. Currently, the way water is being distributed shows systemic problems that lead to massive violations of the rights and freedoms of national minorities. As water becomes increasingly scarce due to climate change and drought, it is imperative that discriminatory policies of water governance in Georgia are addressed as a human rights issue. It has become apparent that, since local and central government authorities are not willing to recognize the violation of rights and freedoms of Azerbaijani and other ethnic minorities in Georgia, the implementation of international legislation at the local and regional levels has perhaps become the only way forward.

We are grateful to members of the Caucasus Center of Human Rights Monitoring (CCHRM) for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: An Azerbaijani woman with cans of water in Georgia. Credit: Aitaj Khalilli.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Elbrus Mamedov