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Villagers Say Armenian PM's Family Fish Farms Sucking Wells Dry

Armenian Villagers Say Politicians' Businesses Behind Water Crisis
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APAGA, Armenia -- An Armenian village whose name translates as "future" could face a waterless future -- and residents are blaming the prime minister.

People in Apaga say there was plenty of water five or six years ago, with artesian wells dug during Soviet times easily providing sufficient supplies for the household and agricultural needs of the village's 2,000 or so residents.

Nowadays, even expensive electric pumps can't draw enough water from the depleted wells.

"It used to be fine, but now it is no good," local resident Mushegh Hakobian said of the water supply in the village in south-central Armenia's Ararat Valley.

Hakobian has heard no official explanation, but says he is certain he knows the culprit: dozens and dozens of wells built in the region to bring water to fish farms, many of them owned by Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and his relatives.

He says that the need to supply water to the Masis, Artashat, and Ararat fish farms has dotted the open fields in the area with newer wells -- in some places as many as 20 on a single hectare.

"That's why the water is gone from here," Hakobian says.

Villagers Skeptical

Apaga has suffered severe water shortages for several years, but some residents say it would be futile to seek help from the authorities because of the involvement of Abrahamian and other officials.

Abrahamian's government forbade the digging of new wells for fish-breeding in the area in June 2014, and says it is shutting down some existing wells.

Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian
Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian

But villagers are skeptical.

"The government knows very well who has dug these wells, who breeds fish in this area," villager Vaghinak Harutiunian says. "All over Ararat Province there are fish farms covering an area of 100-200 hectares and there are no ordinary people among the owners, all of them are people vested with power."

Armenian Environment Minister Aramayis Grigorian told RFE/RL that a number of officials, including the prime minister, had fish farms in the Ararat Valley.

He said that some wells would be closed in 2015, but did not say which ones. "Be it in the area belonging to an official or an ordinary citizen, our actions are consistent with the law," Grigorian said.

He said that all of the fish farms owned by Abrahamian and his extended family were legal.

Powerful Interests

Armenia's State Registry lists at least five companies engaged in fish farming and selling that are fully or partially registered as property of Abrahamian or his relatives.

In Mkhchian, Abrahamian's native village, the Mkhchian Fish Food company, which exports fish, is owned by Abrahamian's nephew, Hovtashat village Mayor Hovik Tadevosian, and business tycoon and politician Gagik Tsarukian -- who is related to Abrahamian by marriage.

The same trio also owns Ecofish Trade, which sells fish and operates fisheries in the towns of Zorak and Mkhchian.

Tadevosian is a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party, which until recently was headed by Tsarukian. Tadevosian was elected mayor of Hovtashat -- and given a prestigious state humanitarian award named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen -- shortly after including Abrahamian and Tsarukian in his fish-breeding businesses.

Tadevosian told RFE/RL that his businesses with Abrahamian and Tsarukian were profitable and exported about 10 tons of fish every month.

But unlike the thirsty residents in Apaga, he suggested he is not particularly worried about the wells running dry. "We are not concerned, because we are doing something useful," he said. "These fisheries pay a lot in taxes to the state. Isn't that useful?"

Another company, Metsn Argam, is owned by Julieta Abrahamian, the prime minister's wife. And about a year ago the prime minister's brother, Henrik Abrahamian, registered a fish company in Mkhchian in the name of his daughter, Meri.

All About Water

But while these Ararat Valley fish farms were being quickly established, Abrahamian's government said in June 2014 that "as a result of the inefficient use of water reserves in the Ararat Valley, an environmentally difficult situation has been created."

The government simultaneously decided to prohibit the building of wells for fish-breeding purposes in the Ararat and Armavir provinces.

Environment Minister Grigorian said that over the past year at least 300 artesian wells that violate environmental rules were closed.

Grigorian, who was governor of Ararat Province in 2013-14 and served as agricultural minister from 2008-09, said that he was not at fault for any illegal wells dug before he was in office.

Grigorian's predecessor as environment minister, Aram Harutiunian, under whom the bulk of permissions for building the wells for fish farms had been issued, was later appointed chairman of the country's Water Committee.

In Apaga, residents expressed doubt that the government's pledges would result in the closure of wells serving the fish farms.

"They tell lies because it is their people [who own the wells]," says villager Vaghinak Harutiunian, who is not related to the former environment minister. "How can they close these wells? They won't let it happen."