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Lake Sevan

Although Lake Sevan is not large, especially compared with the Great Lakes of North America, Armenia may not have existed at all if it were not for this body of water. Before the days of jet airplanes, Armenia was an important trade route from Iran and Turkey to Russia. Several small towns lie on the banks of Lake Sevan, or within a couple of miles of the lake. Many of them began their lives in ancient times as trading stations and inns for travelers.

Sevan, the town, sits at the north end of the hills that ring the lake, and although it has a nice setting, it is primarily an industrial town. It has only 10,000 people, and there is little to see except vacationers hanging out on the rocky shores of the lake in the summer. The nearby towns of Dilijan and Ijevan are surrounded by steep mountains and pine forests.

Because Lake Sevan offered a convenient resting spot for nomadic people and traders, it became a place where people traded goods. Towns eventually built up around the lake, and people began to settle in the area. Had the lake not existed, it is likely no one would have stopped in this little patch of land while heading north. The result is that Armenia’s geographic boundaries would have been completely swallowed by its neighbors, and its unique culture would not have developed. An interesting note is that during the country’s Silver Age, in the 1300s, the Italian explorer and trader Marco Polo (1234–1324) visited Armenia; it is likely he stayed at an inn on the south shore of Lake Sevan, the remains of which are still visible today. Lake Sevan is a favorite spot for archaeologists because the Soviet Union lowered the lake to create hydroelectric power plants. This left centuries-old artifacts right in the open. Some of the roads around the lake travel the same routes taken by explorers and traders such as Marco Polo.

Perched at 1900m above sea level, the great blue eye of Sevana Lich (Lake Sevan) covers 940 sq km, and is 80km by 30km at its widest.  Lake Sevan, which now enjoys national park status, is fed by 28 rivers but there is only one flowing out, the Hrazdan which flows out of the lake at the western end to become a tributary of the Arax. The lake is perfect for escaping Yerevan’s summer heat. Its colours and shades change with the weather and by its own mysterious processes, from a dazzling azure to dark blue and a thousand shades in between. The freshwater lake supports a healthy fish population, including the ishkhan (prince trout), named for a row of spots like a crown on its head.

In 1910, the Armenian engineer Soukias Manasserian published a book entitled The Evaporating Billions and the Stagnation of Russian Capital in which he proposed reducing the depth of the lake from 95m to 45m, using the water for irrigation and hydro-electric generation. The reference to evaporating billions' is a comment on the fact that 90% of the lake's water is lost through evaporation. (Manasserian also produced a plan to reduce the level of the Aral Sea, a much better-known environmental disaster.) Manasserian's scheme was developed in the Stalin era and approved by the then Armenian Soviet government though inevitably without any consultation with local people. The plan was later changed to reduce the level of the lake by 55m which would result in a reduction in its perimeter from 260km to 80km and its volume of water from 58km3 to 5km3. With breathtaking lack of realism it was planned that this drastic reduction in size would be accompanied by an equally drastic increase in the yield of fish caught in the lake of between eight and ten times to be achieved by releasing trout fry from hatcheries into the remains of the lake. A typical Stalin-era writer stated that Lake Sevan's 'scraggy, barren shores will be turned into sweet-smelling meadows, groves of nut trees and oak trees ... Around it beautiful roads and promenades will be laid ... There could be no objection to diminishing the size of the lake for it would merely mean diminishing the annual evaporation of a vast quantity of moisture lhat rose uselessly into the air.'

Work began in 1933 to implement the scheme when the Hrazdan was deepened to increase the discharge from the lake. A tunnel was also bored 40m below the original lake level but, because of delays caused by the war, it was not inaugurated until 1949 and was then trumpeted as a major achievement of the Soviet era. The lake level started to drop by more than 1m per year.

After Khrushchev's speech criticising Stalin at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, the wisdom of the Sevan venture started to be questioned. Already problems were starting to become manifest such as the difficulty of growing the promised nut trees and oak trees on the newly exposed shore together with a reduction in catch of the four subspecies of the endemic Sevan trout Salmo ischachan. In 1958, a 'Sevan Committee' was formed and the Soviet-government decreed that the lake level was to be kept as high as possible with new thermal power stations replacing two of the originally projected eight hydro-electric ones. The new power stations were to be completed by 1970 but removing water for irrigation purposes was to cease by 1965. As a result of the action then taken the water level stabilised in 1962 at 18m below the original level but then eutrophic algal blooms started to occur, for the first time in 1964. A new tunnel, 49km long, was also constructed, intended to bring 200 million cubic metres of water each year north from the Arpa River into the lake. Completed in 1981 the tunnel only succeeded in raising the water level by 1.5m and a second tunnel 22km long was considered necessary to divert a further 165 million cubic metres each year from the Vorotan into the Arpa and thence to the lake. (This tunnel was only completed in 2003.) Matters deteriorated after 1988 as a consequence of the economic blockade of Armenia during the war over Nagorno Karabagh and the simultaneous closure of Metsamor nuclear power station. The Hrazdan River hydro-electric stations had to be operated more to maintain at least limited electricity supplies in Armenia and the level of the lake fell 20m below its original level with a surface area of 940km2 in comparison with the former 1,360km2.

Common whitefish Coregonus lavaretus, known as sig in Armenia, were introduced in the 1920s from Lake Ladoga. This species is also found as a relict species in various lakes in western Britain where it is called the powan, though another closely related fish also shares that name. The idea was that, as the whitefish were shallow-water feeders and the trout fed in deep water, the two could co-exist. In reality, the whitefish did not at first thrive, but changes in the lake caused by the reduction in level with an associated rise in temperature, and the use of agricultural fertilisers in the area round the lake gave rise to conditions which favoured the whitefish but not the trout. The trout are now on the verge of extinction in Armenia although they survive in Lake Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan where the species was introduced. Catching the endemic trout has been prohibited since 1976 but the ban is poorly enforced. It is also possible that the introduced crayfish Astacus leptodactylus is another competitor and goldfish Carassius auratus have also been accidentally introduced.

So far as the whitefish are concerned, falling numbers are giving cause for concern and the Ministry for Nature Protection now imposes a quota on the weight which can be caught each year together with a complete ban during the spawning season which runs from late November to mid December. There is, however, no way of enforcing the quota, and the local fishermen say that there is no way they can afford to cease fishing for the three or four weeks of the spawning season. There is a proposal to ban the netting of fish completely for three to four years. Fish can still be bought on the lakeside but they are no longer openly displayed. Instead the fisherman indicates to likely passing cars that he has fish for sale with the same gesture usually used to show the size of the one that got away. If crayfish are for sale the hand is held in a mimetic position, thumb, ring and little fingers together with index and middle fingers wiggling like the antennae of the creature. The decline in numbers is largely caused by overfishing but common carp Cyprinus carpio which appeared in the lake in the 1980s also compete with the whitefish for food.

The Armenian governments policy is to raise the lake level to 1,904m (a level last seen in 1957 but still some 11m lower than the original 1,915m) by the year 2031. To take the level higher than this would cause great problems because of the building and construction which has taken place on the drained land. By late 2009 a level of 1,899m had been reached. The newly flooded areas are conspicuous at all points around the lake. If the government's target is reached some 1,697 buildings and structures on the lakeside will be submerged, according to the chairman of the Lake Sevan Commission. Only 481 of these buildings are legally authorised and for these compensation will be paid. The rest will be demolished without compensation. A 15km section of the main road around the lake will also be submerged and will have to be rebuilt elsewhere. Already on the west side of the lake vehicles have to negotiate a considerable stretch of temporary dirt causeway across an area being inundated.

When Sevan’s outlet, the Hrazdan River, was tapped for hydroelectric plants and irrigation in the 1950s, the lake fell and is now about 20m lower. Other Soviet plans to drain the lake down to one-sixth its size thankfully went nowhere. The retreating waters uncovered forts, houses and artefacts dating back some 2000 years, and made Sevan Island a peninsula.

The exposed land has been designated the Sevan national park, although some of it is disappearing again as conservationists have convinced the government of the need to raise the level of the lake. Since 2002 it has risen by 2m, an environmental achievement that has meant cleaner water and more fish. Much to the consternation of local investors, the rising tide is also starting to flood into some of the beachside resorts. Tourism is picking up around the lake, but except for a hectic 10 weeks in summer it’s usually quiet. The stark volcanic highlands and plains around the lake endure a long winter, and except for a string of achievements in medieval church building around the lake’s edge, the hinterlands of Gegarkunik marz are not often visited.

To those accustomed to the lakes of Switzerland or the lochs of Scotland, Lake Sevan with no mountains tumbling down to the water's edge will initially seem bare and windswept. Its real attraction lies in the ever-changing colours of its surface and in the skies above it. It is also, particularly on its southern side, an area with a long history and with a great many interesting places to see. Even these historical sites bring forcibly home the problems of the lake: the best known, the monastery of Sevanavank, was formerly on an island but falling water levels have turned the island into a peninsula and visitors travel there by road rather than by boat. Other attractions of the lake, for Armenians at least, are the beaches, the only ones in Armenia. While Western visitors would be unlikely to consider landlocked Armenia as a possible destination for a beach holiday, the beaches do provide a unique experience within the country for Armenians. Privatisation has resulted in visitors having to pay to use some of those adjacent to hotels but, in compensation, they are now looked after properly and kept clean.

Many buildings are springing up on the lakeside. There is no robust planning-permission system and an owner of land can build more or less anything regardless of how inappropriate it might be. Perhaps the owners hope to make enough of a profit before lake levels rise and their buildings are demolished. One hopes that the shores of Lake Sevan will not suffer the same fate as Yerevan's green belt.

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