Energy-rich Azerbaijan may have made gains of late in giving its citizens reliable access to gas and electricity, but on one key front, potable water, the government is lagging. A large percentage, if not a majority, of Azerbaijan’s 8.2 million citizens lacks easy access to potable water.
In the capital, Baku, the problem boils down to one of quantity; in the regions, quality is the problem. Home to about one-third of Azerbaijan’s population, Baku relies on water from the Kura River and the Jeyranbatan Reservoir. But supplies are unable to keep up with the capital’s rapidly expanding number of residents. Fully 87 percent of Baku households are now subjected to water rationing, according to Natik Jafarly, an economist who formerly worked for the state-owned water supply company Azersu. Of the affected Baku households, roughly half have water for seven hours a day (three hours in the morning and four hours in the evening). The other half has water only for four hours in the evenings. Sometimes entire neighborhoods go without water for one to two days, Jafarly added.
Baku’s infrastructure has simply been overwhelmed by a much larger than expected population growth over the past 20 years, Jafarly explained. “Baku’s water and sanitation infrastructure … was designed during Soviet times, and was based on the forecast that a maximum of 1.5 million people would live [in the city] in 2000,” he said. “Therefore, it is not possible to provide an uninterrupted supply of water 24 hours a day to 3.5 million people.”
There are plans to address infrastructure inadequacies, but the cost is high. An 870-million-manat (about $1.1 billion) pipeline, bringing water from the northern town of Oguz, is projected to significantly boost Baku’s water capacity. “If the pipeline works at full capacity, all Baku households would receive water 12 hours a day,” said Jafarly, who also worked for the World Bank, focusing on water-related issues.
The National Budget Group, a government-spending watchdog group, is criticizing the project’s sky-high price tag. The expected cost, financed by the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, has more than doubled since the project was first developed in 2008. Authorities attributed the rising cost-estimate to various technical problems and higher prices for electricity and construction materials.
[Editor’s Note: The National Budget Group receives funding from the Open Society Institute-Assistance Foundation Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the network].
Water from the pipeline is expected to flow to Baku residences starting on December 24, the 49th birthday of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, government sources told EurasiaNet.org.
The head of one non-governmental organization that has researched Azerbaijan’s water problems maintains, though, that the pipeline sidesteps one basic problem – preventing water losses by tackling corruption and upgrading existing infrastructure. Baku already loses about 30 percent of its water supplies each year, estimated Support of Economic Initiatives Chairperson Azer Mehdiyev.
Representatives of Azersu, the government-run water monopoly, could not be reached for comment.
Outside of Baku, the problem is mainly linked to water quality. While quantity is abundant, a mere 19 percent of rural Azerbaijani households have indoor plumbing, according to a United Nations Common Country Assessment. Most households draw their drinking water from artesian wells or streams.
The lack of a comprehensive strategy for improving national access to potable water means that villagers “have to solve their problems themselves,” said Mehdiyev.
One senior Ministry of Health official, however, contends that the volume and quality of village water meet all sanitary code requirements. “We conduct systematic analyses of the quality of water, and there are not any serious problems with it,” said Republican Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology Director Leyla Tagiyeva.
The international community has provided about $12 million since 2007 for the government to install about 80 new water purification plants in the regions. In 2009-2010, the government spent about 1 million manats ($1.25 million) on similar projects.
Years of neglect of Soviet-era infrastructure make have exacerbated the challenges. “The water which comes from the tap often has a yellow-brown color and a disgusting smell, even in buildings located in the center of downtown,” said Emin Kerimov, a 27-year-old unemployed resident of Guba, a town roughly 180 kilometers northeast of Baku. “It’s like it doesn’t come from the water pipeline, but from the sanitation system.”
Despite the obstacles, Baku’s new water pipeline and government interest in expanding regional water purification facilities suggest that there is at least a desire to bring about positive change, said analyst Jafarly.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.