Water Dispute Between Azerbaijan and Dagestan Taking On Ethnic Dimension

August 14, 2014
The Samur river serves as the border of Dagestan and Azerbaijan for 38 km [23.6 miles] causing a water dispute in time of drought. Photo: picasaweb

Staunton, August 14 – Hot weather in the Caucasus has reduced the flows of river water and increased demands for its use, hereby triggering a dispute between Azerbaijanis and Dagestanis. This local conflict appears set to involve Moscow and Baku because it is rapidly taking on an ethnic dimension.

For most of its route, the Samur River flows through Dagestan, but for 38 kilometers [a little over 23.6 miles], it is the border between that Russian republic and Azerbaijan. Between 1967 and 2010, Moscow directed the division of water between the two. Since September 2010, Moscow and Baku have agreed to a 50-50 split.

According to Nazaccent.ru, this has not been a problem under normal conditions,, but a drought this year has raised tensions because the river has almost dried up leaving little water for residents on either side to irrigate their crops. Those on the Dagestan side have complained to Makhachkala and Moscow but without success.

Officials in several villages of the Magaramkent district of Dagestan want to revisit the question of the division of the flow, according to Amil Sarkarov, an officer of the Federation of the Lezgin National-Cultural Autonomy of Russia, the chief representative of the ethnic group which dominates the Dagestani side of the river.

Sarkarov says that the issue is being “considered” but that no specific decisions have been taken. He said that there are “several factors” which are making progress more difficult: the sanctions regime in Russia, under which “one of the suppliers of products could be Azerbaijan,” and also “the intensification of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

As far as he or others know, the Samur River issue was not raised when the presidents of the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Armenia met in Sochi last weekend.

One proposed solution which residents along the banks of the river think may cause yet more problems, economic and ecological, would be the construction of a reservoir in which water could be stored and then released as needed. No one is certain who would control that reservoir or even monitor how water might be released.

Adding to all this is the ethnic factor. Lezgins live on both sides of the river, and they have complained for a long time about what they say is Azerbaijan’s policy of persecution and forced assimilation of their community, complaints that Unrecognized Peoples Organization says are justified.

As Nazaccent.ru points out, “the situation which has arisen on the Samur River does not promote good neighborly relations between the two peoples.” It warns that “if the authorities do not turn their attention to this problem, then certainly destructive forces will be found, ready to transform the struggle for natural resources into an inter-national conflict on yet another border.”