Water and sewerage have become a new front in the long-running and increasingly bitter dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Last week, elements in the Armenian press began reporting that fruit and vegetables grown in Azerbaijan are a danger to human health, because the lack of infrastructure and freshwater there mean the crops are irrigated with raw sewage.
Analysts currently believe that the allegations are unlikely to be true beyond possible isolated incidents, but sales of Azeri produce have already fallen in Moscow and other parts of Russia as news of the allegations is reported.
Ethnic and territorial disputes have long been part of life in the restive Caucuses region, but were mostly held in check by the Soviet system. When the USSR began to fracture in the late 1980s, trouble erupted in the form of riots and pogroms before the two independent states fought a short but brutal war over the still disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Tensions have remained high but stable for the last 20 years, until last month an Azeri army officer convicted in Hungary of killing an Armenian with an axe was released early and allowed to return home, where he was welcomed as a hero. Against this backdrop the Armenian allegations about Azeri farming practices have the potential to spiral into a more serious conflict.
Azeri fruit and vegetables are exported to both Iran and Russia, and a reduction in this trade would have a significant effect on Azerbaijan’s regional economy. Although the country has become wealthy from the sale of oil in recent years, this has benefited the capital Baku while other areas rely on more traditional forms of trade.
The Armenian reports claim that farmers in Azerbaijan’s western regions turned to untreated sewage after the freshwater distribution network degraded during the 1990s. Since then they have been irrigating their fields with wastewater and bribing local health inspectors and government officials to ignore the danger to health this poses, the Armenians say.
For their part, the Azeris admit that the freshwater network is much more advanced in the capital than in the regions, but insist that freshwater for drinking and irrigation is available, and deny any use of sewage in the production of food.
Armenian officials have arranged a meeting in Moscow later this month where they will provide their “evidence,” but sources in Moscow suggest that the Russians will use the meeting to try and diffuse the situation.