Edited by Monica Ellena
The Mktvari river is deeply interwoven with Georgia’s history - it has inspired its bards, it has emboldened its warlords. Unwinding down the Caucasus’ mountains and spreading across its plains, it has marked its history for a millennia, proving a lifeline to Uplistsikhe’s first cave dwellers back in the Iron Age, and embracing its Christian capital, Mskheta. Along its 435 kilometers it carves gorges and ravines and it placidly witnesses Tblisi’s events.
One may contend that the Mktvari is Georgia’s lifeblood.
Its name is said to mean “good waters” in ancient Georgian. Yet today little remains of those good waters and the Mktvari serves as nothing more than a decorative wreath. The landscapes it glides through are beautiful and diverse, but its waters have been abused and polluted, and many call it a dead river instead.
The Mktvari Paata Mtiulishvili and Marika Lapachia know though is quite alive -- and kicking. Since moving to the small village of Skra, in central Georgia, the house where the young couple live with their two children faces regular floods. Every May, the river overflows and it deluges half of the settlement where about 80 families live in poor conditions.
“I got used to it. Every May, I swim my way out from the house, then I go save the neighbors,” explains 27-year-old Paata. “We are usually helped out by the rescue team from Gori [the nearest city].”
Skra sits right on the edge of the water, with no form of protection or levees to prevent the water from overflowing. May is the wettest month. It is also thaw time, when the snow on the Caucasus’ mountains turns into water and pours into the Mktvari or its many tributaries. The synergy pushes the river’s water level up dramatically. Residents and local authorities have been calling for structural intervention to reinforce the embankment and prevent the river from overflowing over its bed every spring, but to no avail.
“Unfortunately permanent housing is not provided for us,” laments Paata. “So I send the kids to stay with their relatives in Gori, while my wife and I wait in the house until it dries up. We wear big rain boots and walk around in the flooded house.”
The soil at the surface remains often damp and unusable, which makes it unsuitable to grow crops or sustain small-scale, independent agriculture either as source of income or as sustenance.
The water that washes Skra is the same that experts describe as contaminated with a litany of garbage, chemical and biological hazards. Untreated urban sewage flowing directly to the river poses an additional public health risk.
Most families have no access to running water in their houses, and rely on draw-wells, with inevitable questions about its safety as the dump soil may not filter the water appropriately.
Paata and Marika moved to Skra from Gori in 2013. They are just two of the families I encountered while journeying along the Mktvari in Shida Kartli, a region in central Georgia - families who migrated from cities to rural areas as unemployment made their urban lives unaffordable. Left penniless by the lack of opportunities, they had no choice but to find shelter in the villages where life is cheaper.
Despite the hardships, the future that children in Skra envision is bright, but it is far away from this river village. They dream to return to the city their parents left.
As I was walking along the railtrack in Akhaldaba, a village of 900 souls in southern Georgia, I met an old man. I asked him to tell me something about the Mktvari.
“Every river has a story [to tell]. Here, I learned how to swim, I spent splendid moments with friends. Most of my childhood’s happiness floated on these waters.”