Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The story of Lake Sevan reveals the tensions between economic development and environmental security in modern Armenia. Jamie Maddison travels around the shores of Lake Sevan to discover how the politics of water management play havoc with the lives of those who live and work in the region.

article summary —

Tucked into a mountain basin sixty kilometres north-east of Yerevan is Lake Sevan (Sevana lich in Armenian). It is an Old World version of Titicaca and Tahoe: a huge montane lake, as beautiful as its counterparts in the Americas. For those who venture out from Yerevan, Lake Sevan is a rewarding sight, most particularly in winter when fewer people are on the move.

Yet for the people who live around the shores of Lake Sevan, life is a far cry from the Arcadian scenes shown on the picture postcards sold in the kiosks and cafés along the lakeside roads. In fact, winter living conditions have become so harsh that many people are now leaving, heading for Russia. Many never return.

Armenia secured its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the ensuring years have not been easy. Nowhere is that more true than on the shores of Lake Sevan. The local economy has nose-dived, the clear social order of the Soviet world has fragmented, and many of the older folk living around Lake Sevan do not recognise the new world they now inhabit. The water level, drastically lowered during a Stalinist-era water-abstraction plan, is creeping back once again, flooding illegally-built and now-abandoned buildings at the water’s edge.

The old social order of the Soviet world has fragmented, and many of the older folk living around Lake Sevan do not recognise the new world they now inhabit.

Fish stocks have plummeted and entire fishing communities have been left redundant. Lastly, creeping colonisation of the shores by cafés, restaurants and hotels is marring a landscape which once enjoyed stringent protection as one of the first national parks in the Soviet Union. Today, it is one of just two national parks in the Republic of Armenia.

Rising waters

Against this backdrop of uneasy change, there is little that stands for permanence. The churches at Sevanavank are a marked exception, and this erstwhile monastic complex is the natural first stop for anyone setting off to explore the Lake Sevan region. At first sight this seems like a sacred landscape untouched by time, but one-time fisherman Gevork Baghdasaryan tells another tale. He points out the trees, modest houses and garish cafés that cluster on the isthmus that leads to the former island with its two distinctive churches.

“According to my grandfather that whole area was once under water. The churches were on an island in the lake,” explains Gevork with a grand gesture towards the churches that rate as the premier tourist attraction in the Lake Sevan region. “And now the water level is rising again. It’s up three metres in the past three years.”

Gevork Baghdasaryan’s vocation as a fisherman may be a thing of the past, but he is one of the lucky few who have carved out a new career. Today, he works as a lake monitoring officer with a local hydrometrological laboratory.

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Jamie Maddison is an English writer and photographer. Find out more about Jamie’s work at www.jamiemaddison.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 38.