Impoverished Riches
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Edited by Monica Ellena and Elizabeth Owen


People claim that life alongside the Kür and the Araks Rivers used to be different. Individuals living along the banks of these two key waterways long for a past that, for many Azerbaijanis, has morphed into a sort of Shangri-La.

Fields were dotted with cotton, as far as the eye could see; the rivers teemed with fish, as much as the nets could catch. Sturgeon abounded in the Caspian Sea and caviar was a staple. Nature provided everything. There was also oil, with drilling rigs pumping Azerbaijan’s black gold non-stop -- that was wealth coming from the land, too. 

The Soviet Union was not exactly a perfect world; in fact, it was a rather grey one. People had little, but it was enough, Azerbaijanis living along the Kür and Araks Rivers claim.

Today, even that little has evaporated.

On the environmental front, where once there was cotton, weeds often dominate.

The rivers’ fish stock has also decreased.Pollution, overfishing, and smuggling have pushed the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon population down to critical levels. Sturgeon fishing in the Caspian is now banned; instead, the fish are bred in manufactured pools.

Many of the area’s factories, hotels and sports-clubs are now just skeletons.

Some hotels no longer host tourists, but thousands of displaced persons from the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, which got underway in the late 1980s as the USSR began to collapse.

The Soviet Union was not Shangri-La, but those living along the Kur and Araks in Azerbaijan have far too many reasons not to long for it.

View on the Mingachevir reservoir from a Soviet-era overlook
Empty buildings, like these in Mingachevir, are common along both the Kür and Araz Rivers.
The Iran-Azerbaijan border near Behremtepe where the Araz flows from Iran into Azerbaijan ( on the left)
A mega-project to expand and improve access to water in the Araz River town of Imishli is scheduled for completion in 2035.
Use of the Araz to transport industrial containers like these risks contributing to the river’s pollution.
A boy stands next to the pool of a Sabirabad hotel, abandoned following heavy floods in 2010.
Boys stand on the embankment where the Araz flows into the Kür. Locals call this spot suqovuşan or qovşaq, meaning a confluence of waters.
Somewhere near Sabirabad, where the Kür and Araz Rivers join, a forgotten boat has been left to rust, further contaminating the water.
Situated where the Kür meets the Caspian Sea, Neftchala is one of the centers of Azerbaijan’s fishing sector.
A fisherman heads out to fish near the Kür River’s entrance into the Caspian Sea.
The Food and Agricultural Organization describes it as “difficult” to distinguish between those fishing for fun in the Kür River delta and those fishing to feed their families.
Fishermen at work in Sabirabad, near where the Kür and the Araz merge. The merged river, called the Kür, is the third-largest river flowing into the Caspian after the Volga and the Ural.
Heavy grazing on land near the Kür River has contributed to the area’s salinization. Here, a shepherd crosses a Neftchala bridge near where the river tapers off into the Caspian Sea.
Sturgeon being fed in Neftchala’s fish farm. Similar facilities also exist in Azerbaijan’s Caspian neighbors, Russia and Iran, since Caspian sturgeon fishing is banned.
A worker monitors a pool with three-year old sturgeon.
Overfishing and pollution have affected the Kür’s ability to supply fish. Instead, that role falls to fish farms like this one at Neftchala.
A site for R&R at the Mingachevir reservoir
Locals train in the gym inside Mingachevir’s rowing club. The town was a popular rowing center during Soviet times since the Kür did not freeze over in winter
Long a favorite spot for boating athletes, Mingachevir in 2015 gained a rowing center for the European Games, a mini-Olympics.
The Kür River’s steady-flowing, ice-free waters turned Mingachevir into a kayaking site in Soviet times.
Children play soccer close to Shirvan’s oil fields in central Azerbaijan.
An abandoned oil drill and cotton-processing machine testify to the economic stresses once placed on the Kür-Araz lowlands.
Scores of buildings have been destroyed for a new avenue near the Kür River in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city after Baku.
Displaced residents from the Karabakh conflict zone greet a visitor to their dwelling in a former accommodation for tourists near the Mingachevir reservoir.
With a New-Year’s decoration hanging over his head, a boy sits on a swing in a rundown playground in Mingachevir. Though IDPs receive state assistance, their integration into Azerbaijani society remains difficult.
Manure used for heating houses. Despite Azerbaijan’s oil-and-gas reserves, people in rural areas often turn to manure and firewood to heat their homes and to cook.
Teenage boys pose in the ruined cafeteria of a collective center in Mingachevir for Internally Displaced People. IDPs often live in rudimentary accommodations, without basic services, and may struggle to find employment.
Portraits of soldiers killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict adorn an abandoned room in a Mingachevir tourist complex made over for IDPs.
An outside toilet in the courtyard of a former tourist pension overlooking the shore of the Mingachevir reservoir. Since 1993, the facility has housed about 50 displaced families from Nagorno Karabakh.
Chai Khana
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