Armenia: Water on Demand Helps Farmers Expand Their Orchards

April 3, 2006

OHANAVAN, Armenia – It is crucial to water an apple tree just after it loses its flowers. If it is not watered on time - and 10 to 12 times until the autumn harvest - its apples remain small and fall to ground without ever ripening.

This is a lesson Armenian farmers learned the hard way when the country’s irrigation system disintegrated under the weight of management chaos and physical neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Erratic water supplies and decrepit canals threatened the livelihoods not only of apple growers but farmers all over the country: 80% of Armenia’s agricultural output comes from irrigated land.

When their orchards died, some farmers in the Ararat valley, the country’s rich-soiled agricultural food basket, were forced to switch to wheat, a less valuable crop which can make do with rain. So today, when orchards are making a come-back, those who revived Armenia’s irrigation system are justifiably proud. Each new sapling is a sign of farmers’ trust that renovated water canals and well-managed water users’ associations will keep the apple business alive.

Orchards Have Expanded

Agricultural output grew by 14% in 2004, as a result of increased domestic consumption and a combination of technical factors, among which enhancements in the irrigation system is probably the greatest.

Hamayak Hayrapetyan, a 53-year old farmer packing the 2005 harvest’s last apples into wooden carts, is typical of this new-found confidence. Like other villagers in Ohanavan, in the mountainous area close to the Ararat valley, he was awarded a hectare of land when the collective orchard was privatized in 1992. Today, Hayrapetyan and his relatives own 40 rows of trees producing juicy Golden apples. Recently he invested in four more rows on nearby pasture-land where some farmers are experiencing with drip irrigation.

Both Hayrapetyan’s mature and fledgling trees are close to canals that carry water eight kilometers down from the Aparan reservoir up in the mountains.

More Secure Water Reservoirs

The reservoir, which provides irrigation water for the Ararat valley, was reinforced under a first World Bank project which sought to consolidate obsolete and dangerous structures after a small dam failure in 1994 killed four people.

One hundred seventy-thousand people live downstream from the Aparan dam which received a new emergency spillway as well as measuring and communication systems which were sorely lacking. (Overall, dam reinforcements conducted under this project mean the lives of 370,000 downstream residents all over Armenia are more secure.)

The main water canals were rehabilitated already 9 years ago but look as good as new. Good-quality cement canals do not require as much maintenance as the Soviet ones which were plagued with mossy growth and leaks, notes Adibek Ghazaryan, director of the Project Implementation Unit since the beginning of the World Bank’s involvement in Armenia’s water sector development.

New Water Users Associations Are Closer to Farmers' Needs

A second World Bank project has focused on the management of water once it reaches a farmer’s furrows.

Under the Soviet Union, when a public agency maintained the entire irrigation system, there was no proper accounting of water. “No one knew how much water was collected or used,” says Ghazaryan.

The public agency still oversees the maintenance of reservoirs and main canals but the secondary canals are now managed by 53 separate Water Users Associations which sign contracts with individual farmers.

Consumption is carefully measured and payments accounted for using sophisticated locally-developed software, which shows, field by field, which crops are cultivated and who owes what. To increase transparency, lists of payers and non-payers are made public at local post offices, a big improvement over the shady personal deals that used to govern water payments collected by state-employed ditch masters.

“You were never sure where the money would go - it could end in the ditch master’s pocket,” recalls Hayrapetyan. “Now we get receipts, so no one can ask us for money twice.”

Right after land was privatized, most farmers refused to pay for water. Access to irrigation was a free-for-all where the first one at the gate got most water. Farmers quarreled as their harvests shrunk.

Although water was usually plentiful, the water agency would cut off water supplies for 20 days at a time in a clumsy effort to make farmers pay. “They did it in August, in the hottest month, at the worst possible time. They didn’t care: they were civil servants who received salaries no matter what happened to the farmers,” says Hrach Nazaretyan, chairman of the Kazach Water Association which has 2,200 members including apple-grower Hayrapetyan.

The water associations, which elect representatives every year, are much closer to the farmers’ concerns than the old state agency ever was. The collection of fees is often delayed till a farmer’s harvest is sold. By taking into account the rhythm of seasons and individual needs, associations are much better at collecting fees and covering irrigation costs. Cost recovery has gone from 8% in 2001 to an expected 35% in 2005, says Giuseppe Fantozzi, the project’s Task Team Leader at the World Bank.

“State subsidies are down and farmers are happier,” he notes. “It’s a winning situation.”

Several World Bank-supported projects made this progress possible.