03 February 2012

The Last Armenian Great Lake

Armenia once had three big lakes. Lake Van is now in Turkey, Lake Urmia is now in Iran. That leaves only one - the high-altitude, brilliantly blue Lake Sevan, the jewel of the Lesser Caucasus.
To Armenians, it's a treasure - though this time of year, it's mostly ignored. The strange thing is, the country almost lost this lake too, but not because their borders were redrawn.
In the early part of the twentieth century, a group of Soviet scientists convinced the central government that something had to be done about evaporation. Their theory was that less water would be lost into the air (and more could be used for agricultural purposes) if the water levels in certain lakes were lowered.
Sevan was a prime target, and was actually used as an example in an initial proposal. While some twenty-eight rivers and streams feed Sevan, there is only one outlet - it's estimated that as much as 90% of the lake's water loss is through evaporation.
Between 1933 and 1949, a tunneling and channeling project lowered the water by about sixty feet. The original plan was to plant walnut and fruit trees on the newly-dried land, and to establish a fishery in the water that remained. The trees never worked out, the fish did.
What the soviets didn't count on was the blossoming of a domestic tourism industry that has redefined Sevan's shores. Quiet during these winter months, the area around the western edge of the lake becomes the most visited in Armenia during the summer - something that would have been unimaginable when this was a USSR borderland.
The trout are a staple - we had lunch at one sleepy canteen and were given basically this one option. Heavily seasoned with paprika and onions, grilled and served with lavash, it was even better than we expected.
Since the 1960's, there have been various efforts to replenish the lake's waters - the effect on its environment has been disastrous and the irrigation projects weren't as successful as the scientists had thought. Also, the level continued to drop. Adding to the worry about Sevan was the failure of similar projects - most notably the Aral Sea disaster - and the now understood possibility that the water would disappear entirely.
Two large inflow channels have been built in the past thirty years, though water from one hasn't begun flowing because its source is in Azerbaijan (and the political situation between the two countries remains icy). Still, the lake's level has remained mostly unchanged, which Armenia actually considers a moderate success.
Recently, there has begun to be opposition to replenishment. Because so much of the region's tourist infrastructure has been built right along the shore, rising waters would mean huge property losses.
The land around the lake has been inhabited for millennia, and some of the country’s most important bronze age and medieval sites are near the shores. Covered by orange lichen on the outside and by carved crosses on the inside, tiny Hayrivank Monastery was once just feet above the waves. Now, it stands on a rocky knoll high above the water, marooned behind a line of beach huts and scrubby grass.
The early Armenian name for the Sevan meant "black Svan," because it was darker than its sister waters to the west. The color of the water is very pretty, made even more cobalt because of the white mountains on the northern shore and the light blue of the iced-over bays.
Even though Sevan is now only about seventy percent as large as it once was, it's still among the world's largest lakes above 5,000 feet. As we drove along the southern edge a few boats crept along the surface, far enough out that it was difficult to keep track of them. The mountains faded into the distance, the far shore dipped below the horizon. It was difficult to imagine all of this as a dry valley, just as difficult to imagine the houses and hotels submerged and gone.

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