Azerbaijan and Daghestan are at loggerheads over the use of water from the Samur River that in its lower reaches marks the border between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. Daghestan’s Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry alleged earlier this week that Azerbaijan is channeling off far more water than it is entitled to under the terms of the border treaty signed four years ago; the Azerbaijani joint stock company responsible for irrigation and water resources denies this.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents of Daghestan’s Magerramkent border district are concerned that the reduction in the volume of water in the lower reaches of the river is negatively affecting the region’s fragile ecosystem, thereby posing a direct threat to their livelihood, which depends on the sale of agricultural produce. In 2013, Daghestan’s Ministry of Water Resources estimated that some 4,500 hectares of land remain unirrigated most years because of the water shortfall.
The use of the river’s water, and the volume each littoral polity is entitled to divert for its own use, is codified in the interstate treaty of September 3, 2010, on the border between Azerbaijan and Russia. Under the terms of that treaty, 30.5 percent of the total volume is designated the environmental norm; the remainder is to be shared equally by the two sides. The flow is currently 14.5 cubic meters per second, of which Azerbaijan and Daghestan are each entitled to 5 cubic meters. But according to Daghestan’s First Deputy Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Marat Aliomarov, Azerbaijan is taking an additional 3 cubic meters.
An unnamed Azerbaijani expert, however, offered a different explanation. He said the reason why the flow of the river is so low at its lower reaches is that because of this summer’s drought, the initial volume has fallen from the usual 60 cubic meters per second to 14.5 cubic meters.
Local villagers have been complaining for several years that the water table in the region is falling. Last fall, they convened a series of mass protests against plans by the republican government to drill artesian wells to pipe drinking water to the coastal town of Derbent, which has a population of 120,000. Those plans were suspended in the wake of a session of Daghestan’s Public Chamber in February at which Magerramkent residents outlined their concerns, including the threat to the survival of the region’s unique tropical liana forest. Federal agencies and the Union of Hydrologists of Russia were co-opted to assess the likely impact of the project and propose alternative options for supplying Derbent with water.
Last month, the administrative heads of five Magerramkent villages appealed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who as Russian president signed the 2010 border treaty) and Daghestani Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov to ensure that the river water is shared equally in order to preclude “a conflict situation.”
The dispute over water from the Samur is, furthermore, just one aspect of the long-standing clash of economic, and possibly also geopolitical, interests between Daghestan and Azerbaijan. The two largest ethnic groups in southern Daghestan are the Azerbaijanis and the Lezgins. The latter are a northeastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century. Their historic homeland is split between Russia and Azerbaijan. Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. According to official data, they number only 178,000, while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000 (of a total population of 9.42 million).
They have long been regarded with suspicion in light of demands voiced in the 1990s by some Lezgins in Daghestan for the unification of their ethnic group in a separate republic. Several hundred of them were forced to leave their homes in Azerbaijan and relocate to Daghestan following the signing of the 2010 border treaty.
Today, many of Daghestan’s Lezgins are convinced that Baku has ambitious plans to expand its presence and influence in southern Daghestan, and that the Daghestani leadership either approves of that expansion or is reluctant, or even powerless, to counter it. Azerbaijan’s Ata Holding has put up 1 billion rubles ($27 million) toward the cost of renovating infrastructure and building new sports facilities in Derbent in the run-up to the planned celebrations in 2015 of the 2000th anniversary of its foundation. Some Azerbaijani scholars even claim that Derbent is an Azerbaijani town.