Restoring the Fallen Blue Sky: Management Issues and Environmental Legislation for Lake Sevan, Armenia

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
UC Davis School of Law

Armenia is a small, landlocked country in the Southern Caucasus Mountains. It is one of the world's oldest civilizations,¹ yet a very young country. It was formed as one of the Newly Independent States (NIS) following the 1991 breakup 'of the Soviet Union. Armenia's landscape ranges from rugged, impassible volcanic peaks in the Caucasus that reach nearly 3,600 meters above sea level, to highly fertile land in the Ararat Valley, the principal agricultural region of the country. Lake Sevan, the "Heart-of Armenia,"² at one time encompassed nearly five percent of the country's surface area. Lake Sevan is one of the oldest, largest, and highest alpine lakes in the world. It is the lake heralded by Maxim Gorky as a glorious piece of fallen blue sky.³ The size, depth, and high mountain location of Lake Sevan has made it an important ecological and cultural focus for the people of Armenia over many centuries. Yet these features also turned the lake into one of the most misguided and ecologically catastrophic engineering follies of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1930s, the government of the Soviet Union undertook a series of management'decisions to divert a substantial quantity of Lake Sevan's waters to the Hrazdan River for irrigation in the Ararat Valley and for hydroelectric power generation.⁴ The Soviet plan called for decreasing the lake's surface area, thereby decreasing water loss from evaporation and increasing the amount available each year for agricultural and hydroelectric purposes.⁵ Water was taken from the lake at rates significantly above the natural inflow, which decreased its volume by over forty percent and lowered its level by roughly nineteen meters over a span of forty years.⁶ The lake's surface area has diminished from 1,416 square kilometers to about 1,240 square kilometers.⁷ This decrease in water level, together with increased pollution loads from point and non-point sources, has significantly destabilized Lake Sevan's hydrology and ecology, resulting in an accelerated eutrophication process (algae growth) and substantial adverse impacts on the lake and its basin's flora and fauna.⁸ Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, restoration of Lake Sevan has become a matter of high priority within the newly independent Armenia, and has drawn the interest of the international environmental community.⁹ Organizations outside Armenia, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the Ramsar Convention, and USAID have brought international attention to the lake, adopting management plans and position statements designed to increase protection, conservation, and restoration of the lake. Armenia, in turn, has responded by enacting a number of environmental laws that bear upon management of the lake and its surrounding region, including a series of laws that address only Lake Sevan. This article examines the ecological problems plaguing Lake Sevan as a result of the lake's decreased water level during the Soviet era and the legal efforts taken to address them. Part I presents an overview of the lake's limnology, comparing its original natural conditions with those found in the current wake of the level lowering project. Part II canvasses the laws enacted over the years to address the Sevan problem. This review begins at the political source of the problem-the philosophy of Soviet Marxism, the Stalinist policy to transform nature, and the few legal initiatives taken near the end of the Soviet era to address water resource issues throughout the USSR. The article then covers the post-Soviet era during which the independent Republic of Armenia enacted laws designed to address the environment in general and Lake Sevan in particular. This section reviews the international agreements and action plans that hold significance for Sevan. Finally, Part III undertakes an assessment of the various laws and management plans that impact the lake's iestoration and future health. The article concludes that while the laws and plans derive from well-meaning intent, there is little reason to expect meaningful restoration. So long as the Armenian economy remains depressed and dependent upon the exploitation of Sevan's dwindling resources, and until the laws affecting the lake's health become more pragmatic in approach and better endowed with enforcement provisions that are carried out with force, the lake's health will likely continue to decline.