Georgia’s dirty waters

Author: Zurab Balanchivadze

 “All of us have problems with water here, especially when it rains. It becomes as turbid as milk. Sometimes it becomes such a dark color that you can’t even use it for washing. Diarrhea is a common thing here” - states Pikria Meshveliani, 39, head of the kindergarten in the village of Tsintskaro, which has a population of less than 2000 people.

Most village residents are not aware of their rights on drinking-water. In some places entire generations have never had direct access to water from pipes.

The disturbing color of water is unfortunately commonplace for the residents of Velispiri village. Obtaining clean drinking water is their daily task for at least 20 years. Located in the Kvemo Kartli region in Dmanisi municipality, Velispiri is one of several dozens of villages in Georgia grappling with the lack of clean drinking water. As a result, residents mostly use neighborhood wells for drinking purposes, but even that doesn’t guarantee its safety.

Although 26,060 rivers exist within the country’s territory, most of the surface water and a portion of groundwater is polluted. In addition, about 70% of the country’s rivers are located in the western part of Georgia, with just 7,951 rivers in the eastern part of the country. However, the situation remains challenging in the country’s western villages as well. It is particularly bad due to the fact that most water supply systems in villages haven’t been renovated since the time of the Soviet Union. In Velispiri, residents say that generations have spent their lives in the village without ever having access to clean tap water or properly functioning pipes.

Mariko Tsikoridze, 41, is a Project Coordinator for the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) in the Shida Kartli and Kvemo Kartli regions. CENN aims to increase accessibility to clean drinking water for women and children in the villages of the South Caucasus. According to her, the problems obtaining and drinking clean water concern both the government and society. She states, “For example, when representatives of the local government choose priorities in the village of Khutor-Leshbadeni, which did not have access to clean water for 25 years, the residents ask to renovate the house of rituals rather than requesting for new water pipes to be installed. The problem is not only that there’s no water but also the fact that these people have gotten used to living with no water.”

Toilets of the public school in Tsintskaro village, Tetritskaro municipality, were renovated in 2016,  but today those renovations are hardly visible. Despite the absence of some basic standards, there’s simply no water there. Tap water keys are broken and the building looks abandoned. Mariko Tsikoridze from CENN says school students tend to vandalize and damage bathrooms and toilets because they don’t acknowledge its importance. “In many cases they do not even wash their hands after using the toilets. “According to UN standards, schools or kindergartens that don’t have access to water are to be closed,” she adds.

Apart from coping with unclean water or no water at all, many people don’t know about their rights to clean and safe drinking water. The World Health Organization considers access to safe drinking water a basic human right. In order to increase awareness about this, CENN launched WaSH Councils in the regions that unite both residents and local governments to solve problems with water within their communities. The term “WaSH” is a globally accepted term that means Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. The initiative was launched in May 2018 and since then has had mostly successful results.

The toilets in Tsintskaro’s public school are detached from the main building and have no water.

The equipment in both boys and girls’ restrooms were vandalized, apparently by the kids themselves.

Lela Gogochuri, 58, is a resident of Velispiri village and is the caretaker of the only school uniting three villages: Velispiri, Sarkineti and Ganakhleba (the total population of which is approximately 200 people). She found out about CENN and decided to apply to be a member of the WaSH Council in order to help her school. “I became a member of the WaSH Council and we received special trainings on grant writing and project management. So, we wrote a grant and as a result, the toilets at our school were updated according to modern standards,” Lela Gochiauri said.

The majority of WaSH council members are women. They have become the heads of the meetings which define the special needs of the given places and request funding from the government and NGOs for future projects. Bela Gazdeliani, 39, is an eco-migrant from Svaneti who has been living in the village of Tsintskaro since 2007. She managed to make some effective changes at the kindergarten. “This village, like many others, has Greek roots and first water supplies were made by them. Despite several past renovations, the water either doesn’t reach every family or isn’t drinkable. Some neighbors have wells, but that water is salty and many locals must drink distilled water. So, our WaSH council project was to save kids. This is how they installed a new freeze-resistant reservoir and a water filter to supply water to this kindergarten,” commented Bela Gazdeliani. She added that women tend to be more active in issues concerning water as women utilize it more than men on a daily basis.

In fact, it is mostly women that utilize water in the regions. Women are tasked with the responsibilities of washing, cooking and taking care of children and require water on a daily basis in order to accomplish these tasks. According to Mariko Tsikoridze, women often have to carry dozens of liters of water for many kilometers and unfortunately, some of these women get used to this backbreaking routine and don’t seek out easier and more effective alternatives.

The problem of understanding the need for safe drinking water goes beyond gender. Simon Gabrichidze, 46, from the Welfare Foundation NGO, has studied water conditions in the country’s 206 schools and says that sometimes even school administrations aren’t aware of the negative consequences as a result of polluted water. “We asked the directors of some schools whether they know about the condition of water in their schools and many responded that they drank that water throughout their childhood and they are still alive.” Gabrichidze mentioned a stereotype which claims that all springs are healthy “and in reality, many of the watersupply systems are either broken, unprotected or outdated,” he added. 

Lela Gogochuri from Velispiri village is a member of the WaSH council, which managed to improve the condition of water and toilets in the only school serving the three villages of Velispiri, Sarkineti and Ganakhleba.

Pre and post analysis of the water were conducted to meet the high standards. Also, the installed water reservoir endures the harsh weather conditions during the winter.

Before the renovation the school toilets in Velispiri village (Dmanisi District of Georgia) were behind the building and in appalling conditions. They no longer work. According to CENN toilets should be either inside the school building or within 20 meters away, and should have the sufficient amount of water to meet hygiene standards.

Lack of awareness regarding right to have drinking water means that the renovation of water supplies does not feature among the priorities in peoples’ requests to the government.

In Gabrichidze’s opinion, being unaware of the consequences of drinking unclean water is another issue that most of the population tends to ignore. “Water pollution can contain potentially fatal bacteria. Bacterial pollution, which is more common, is mostly caused by old or unprotected water systems that could lead to intestinal infections. Other types of pollution are mainly created by farming work when fertilizer mixes with the water. One of the widespread results of intestinal infection is Escherichia Coli which causes diarrhea in kids and can prevent them from attending classes for weeks at a time,” states Simon Gabrichidze. He also added that in kindergartens the situation is better because they are checked by the National Food Agency and in the case of serious problems, they are closed.

Simon Gabrichidze presented his report based on 9 months of research to the representatives of the ministries of healthcare, agriculture and infrastructure at the National Seminar About Humans Rights On Water And Hygiene on May 28th in Tbilisi. According to him, it was the first platform that provided an opportunity for all sides to speak about the problem.

As access to clean drinking water remains a significant problem in most of Georgia’s regions, CENN says that local governments have begun to act according to recommendations provided by CENN in terms of water access. The mayor of Dmanisi explains that during Soviet times, when villages were first switched to systematized water supply systems, only the district’s main springs would be appropriate for technical regalements, in other words, being useful for drinking. “Separate supplies of water to individual households, for example, wasn’t negotiated for to have such a high drinking standard or even be provided at all,” he commented. 

The mayor of the province consisting of one town, 15 communities and 59 villages declared that 3 out of 27 public schools will be fully renovated by the end of August.

“Next year we’re rehabilitating toilets in two other schools and the toilets will be brought inside the building in six other schools. So, for the most part, there won’t be an alarming situation in the province,” said the mayor.  On the other hand, he also emphasized the fact that society’s awareness of water usage is critically low: “In some schools new toilets were recently installed without water because the project writers who asked for co-founding never mentioned that vital addition in the project budget. So, basically, we have new toilets without water,” he commented. 

Simon Gabrichidze stated that there are many components of the same problem that neither the government nor schools are aware of. “On the one hand, it’s a systemic flaw that a random school might say that the local municipality and the Ministry of Education are responsible for the water issues and on the other hand, the local government might think that it’s the school’s and the ministry’s joint duty. We even asked the directors to whom they should address and they didn’t know the answer,” he said.

During his survey, Simon Gabrichidze found cases of defective rehabilitations as well. For instance, in the city of Akhmeta in the Kakheti region, the pipes had been repaired but local residents still weren’t getting any water. Georgia’s rural communities are in desperate need of clean and safe drinking water, but what’s unfortunate is that most of them are unaware of their own needs and rights concerning water.


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