Six months into blockade, Nagorno-Karabakh faces energy crisis as key reservoir dries up
The region's already meager electricity generation capacity is in jeopardy, and an "environmental disaster" could be at hand, the local de facto authorities say.
The Sarsang Reservoir in Armenian-administered Nagorno-Karabakh is reaching critically low levels. If it gets much lower, the region will face crisis-level electricity shortages and environmental catastrophe.
Karabakh has been largely dependent on the reservoir for electricity generation since early January, when cables from Armenia were damaged and could not be repaired amid Azerbaijan's blockade.
The severe water shortage - sure to worsen as temperatures rise and precipitation reduces in summer - will likely make it impossible for Karabakh authorities to deliver on a deal to provide Sarsang water to nearby Azerbaijani-controlled areas for agricultural purposes. This raises the risk of "military provocation" from Baku, local officials fear.
Critical levels reached
Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto state minister, Gurgen Nersisyan, reported on May 6 that in the first five months of 2023 almost three times as much water had been released from the Sarsang Reservoir compared to the same period last year. This while water inflow was half as much due to lower precipitation.
"Currently, Sarsang's water resources have reached a critical limit of about 88 million cubic meters (about 15 percent of the total capacity), approaching the dead (unusable) volume of about 70 million cubic meters," he wrote on Facebook.
His post included a striking pair of satellite images showing how much the water level in Sarsang has fallen between January 1 and April 28.
A few weeks later, on May 25, Karabakh's energy distribution company announced that "unprecedented water scarcity" compelled it to further limit electricity production and introduce a new rolling blackout schedule of three 2-hour outages per day.
The Sarsang hydroelectric power plant is one of six remaining in the region and accounts for 70 percent of its generation capacity.
Prior to the Armenian defeat in the Second Karabakh War of 2020, there were an additional 30 hydropower plants under the local authorities' control and their loss resulted in a 59 percent decrease in generation capacity.
After the war, cables from Armenia through the Lachin corridor provided the region with about 70 percent of its electricity needs but this line was damaged in January, a few weeks after Azerbaijan began its blockade.
On January 9, the Nagorno-Karabakh government began implementing rolling blackouts since the region was now entirely dependent on its own generation capacity.
(During the blockade, which began on December 12 when Azerbaijani government-backed activists staged a sit-in on the Lachin corridor, Karabakh Armenians also dealt with periodic disruptions to internet access and natural gas supply. There has been no gas supply to Karabakh since March 22.)
Artak Beglaryan, an advisor to Karabakh's de facto state minister, says that Sarsang and the region's five other hydropower plants are operating at maximum capacity but will likely not meet the population's needs in the coming weeks and months.
"If precipitation decreases again, which will undoubtedly happen, soon in June, we will gradually extend the rolling blackouts. We will confront serious energy issues in summer, which will bring about dire humanitarian conditions. If the volume drops to the dead level, an environmental disaster will also fully manifest itself," Beglaryan told Eurasianet.
Irrigation demands unlikely to be met
Davit Babayan, an advisor to the Karabakh president and founder of the water security committee after the First Karabakh War (1991-1994), says that when the Soviet authorities built the reservoir in 1976, it was meant both to generate electricity and to provide irrigation for surrounding farmland through a management system based in Terter, Azerbaijan.
Between the two wars, the reservoir was used to generate electricity for the local Armenian population in winter. Water was simultaneously released into Azerbaijan-controlled territory, but it was of little use to local farmers because of the season.
That changed after the second war, and in June 2022, Karabakh officials told Eurasianet that they had informally agreed to allow some of the water from Sarsang to flow into Azerbaijan for irrigation purposes in the summertime.
But Babayan says since then Azerbaijan has declined numerous proposals for more detailed discussions on the joint use of the reservoir's water.
"They decided that any deal with Nagorno-Karabakh authorities would mean indirect recognition of the de-facto republic, and they preferred to leave their agricultural issues unresolved over signing agreements with Karabakh," he said.
Aside from a brief experiment with dialogue in March 2023, Baku has been refusing to engage the Karabakh Armenian authorities. The main sticking point in the talks on a comprehensive peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is Yerevan's insistence on guarantees for the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians backed by some kind of international mechanism. Azerbaijan has not obliged despite Armenia's now-explicit readiness to recognize its sovereignty over Karabakh.
Artak Beglaryan, the advisor to Karabakh's state minister, believes Azerbaijan's goal is the "complete de-electrification" of the region as part of its campaign of "psychological terror" aimed at pushing the Armenian population out of Karabakh.
"They are also trying to create a military pretext around this matter. If we do not release enough water in summer, because we will not have water there, they will use this for military provocations," Beglaryan added, noting signs pointing to this in Azerbaijani media.
Indeed, there have been at least some calls in Baku to take action over Sarsang. Adalat Verdiyev, a military expert, said that the drying of the reservoir could lead to cracks in the dam, which in turn could cause flooding in nearby Azerbaijani-populated areas once precipitation picks up again. "Six districts of Azerbaijan will wind up underwater. We must prevent this catastrophe," he said, as quoted by Nedelia.az on May 22.
Beglaryan sees two solutions to the electricity issues: the restoration of electricity supplies from Armenia or unusually high precipitation – both of which he considers highly unlikely.
"As an emergency response, we will reduce consumption to minimal levels and extend the power blackouts. We also make attempts to create alternative energy sources, but this is not a quick solution to the issue, and time is of the essence," he added.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.