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Fishermen get up early in Sabirabad. Long before the sun rises, a small army of men takes to the water, their sun-charred skin blending with the dim light, their chiseled hands throwing nets up in the air and down into the suqovuşan, a confluence of waters. Here in southern Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus’ mighty rivers, the Kura and the Araks, wed and become one.
Locals call the combined river “Mother Kur” since it nurtures the land. But throughout the Caucasus, that nurturing role is often forgotten.
Rivers know no borders, yet, as elsewhere in the world, locals have drawn frontiers along the Kura and Araks Rivers, overused their water, often contaminated them or entangled them in conflict. As a result, cooperation on how to manage this vast cross-boundary water basin is close to non-existent. It’s a situation that benefits no one.
Embracing the whole South Caucasus, the Kura-Araks basin is both a servant and a breathtaking marvel for the millions who live along its shores. Both rivers originate in Turkey and flow eastward. To the north, the Kura runs for 1,515 kilometers through Georgia and into Azerbaijan where it merges with the Araks before tapering off into the Caspian Sea.
The Araks flows south for 1,072 kilometers, carving out a natural border for most of its length between Turkey and Armenia and, then, between Armenia and Iran and Iran and Azerbaijan. Along the way, thousands of tributaries feed a watershed of over 123,000 square kilometers. It is not always a placid journey. Competition for water has long been a trigger for conflict, but in a conflict-ridden region like the Caucasus, the problem is even more acute.
During Soviet times, water management fell under a central policy designed by the Kremlin. It was an absurdly identical policy across the gargantuan country; bilateral agreements were signed with both Turkey and Iran that provided equal access to the Araks River. General surface-water quality standards were put in place in the 1960s, but there were no specific guidelines or management practices on how to control the sources of pollution and monitor water quality.
When the USSR broke apart in 1991, the 15 independent countries that emerged inherited this lack of regulation. Scrambling to set up state institutions from scratch and manage everything from telephone codes to new currencies, they had little time or thought left for water management. Too often, division trumped cooperation.
In the early 1990s, brutal territorial conflicts tore apart all three of the South Caucasus’ countries. They affected the Kura and Araks Rivers as well. The start of full-scale war in 1991 over Nagorno Karabakh , for instance, put paid to any chance for cooperation on water-management between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani ally Turkey. Waste from centers for the displaced near the rivers added further to the problem.