Azerbaijan Flood Victims Complaining about Slow Reconstruction Pace
It’s been almost four months since flooding in Azerbaijan’s Sabirabad Region displaced tens of thousands of residents. Now, amid slow-paced reconstruction efforts, a popular tide of anger and resentment appears to be rising.
Although construction on new housing units got underway in mid-August, dozens of displaced persons told a EurasiaNet.org correspondent that they had not received any financial assistance since the Kura and Araz rivers burst their banks, causing widespread destruction of agricultural fields and personal property. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“I’ve been wearing these pants for four months,” said one elderly man, surrounded by a crowd of displaced villagers currently occupying a school in the town of Sabirabad, “They tell us we have to leave when school begins [in mid-September] but we have no where to go. What should we do, sleep on the streets?”
It’s not unusual these days in the Sabirabad Region to see an abandoned house with its walls stripped down to wooden posts by the flooding. Numerous residences can be seen in various states of decay, sitting barren fields. Local schools house the bulk of the displaced. But an unlucky few have had to make due in tents provided by the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Vafadar Bagirov, a top official in Sabirabad, downplayed the complaints about the reconstruction process. He told EurasiaNet.org that the process is proceeding on schedule, with around 350 of a planned 500 housing units now under construction in 28 villages. “The apartments will be finished before the onset of winter,” Bagirov said. Displaced families should be able to move into their new homes by early November, he added.
About 1,000 households will receive payments to cover repairs. The amount to be paid will depend on the size of the home that has suffered flood damage. Those whose homes have been condemned will be entitled to move into government-built residences of the same size, and receive a one-time welfare payment.
“The work proceeds in stages. … It has just begun,” Bagirov said. One explanation for the perceived delay in rebuilding, he maintained, was that evaluating the damage and estimating compensation payments was more time-consuming than originally envisioned.
While some communities in neighboring regions are rebuilding in areas that are beyond the floodplain, Bagirov said no villages in Sabirabad will be relocated. In some cases, that means new houses are being built next to ruined ones.
Mehman Aliyev, director of the opposition-oriented Turan News Agency, contends that the flooding damage could have been mitigated had the government had better management strategies in place. Investigative reports published by Turan indicated that a failure to properly dredge the Kura River Delta, where its waters flow into the Caspian Sea, played a role in the flooding, along with other factors. [Editor’s note: Aliyev is also the board chair of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation Azerbaijan, which is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, which is also part of the foundations network].
Aliyev (no relation to President Ilham Aliyev) also raised questions about the transparency of official reconstruction efforts. He has helped launch an NGO umbrella group called “Kura.” Its activists are going from village to village to make detailed damage assessments, which they intend to use as evidence in potential lawsuits seeking additional government compensation.
Some of the displaced say officials have been unresponsive to their queries and their immediate needs. “My wife is sick with a stroke and a concussion” said a man from Javad village, “And I cannot afford medicine for her. Two or three times I’ve come here [to the local government office] to ask for help and they don’t help. … I need to pay out of my pocket, but I don’t have any money.”
Others asserted that good connections were needed in order to ensure government action. “If you have a friend [in the government] the work goes forward, if not, you’re not entitled to anything,” said one flood victim who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While foundations for the new housing units have been laid in many of the afflicted areas, workers at some construction sites told EurasiaNet.org that there were shortages of building materials. There also appears to be a shortage of construction workers, reportedly due to the low salaries that the government is offering. In some cases, work has stopped completely because of delays in the payment of construction workers, villagers reported.
Frustration in at least one instance has already boiled over into public protest. On August 14, over 100 people from the villages of Urajaly, Shikhlar and Mursalli held a rally, calling on officials to pick up the reconstruction pace. According to some attendees, law-enforcement officials acted forcefully to break up the rally, making a few arrests.
Bagirov denied that authorities used a heavy hand. “There was no conflict, nothing was suppressed,” he said. Asked if the villagers who maintained that they had been detained for five days without being charged were lying, Bagirov responded: “If they were arrested, it was for a violation and with due process.”
The end of summer is starting to compound the anxiety felt by many of the displaced. One widow now residing at a Sabirabad school pantomimed a noose around her neck when asked what she plans to do this coming winter if she doesn't receive assistance. "What can I do?" she said, "My son has to go to the army and I don't have any family. I just don't know." Her friend commiserated: "You spend 30, 40 years building a home and in one day, it's gone."