2.2.1. Emergency situation triggered by occupation of the Sarsang water reservoir and its discussion at the international level

As was stated, a number of facilities of strategic importance for Azerbaijan have also remained in the occupied territories. Naturally, several water reservoirs under occupation are also among those strategic facilities. Thus, the ongoing occupation of a significant part of Azerbaijani territories for many years has inflicted extensive damage to the economy and agriculture of the front line districts. The deliberate deprivation of the front line residents of Azerbaijan from water by the aggressor and the use of water resources as a threat against these residents have led to devastating consequences.

The Sarsang dam is the largest of the water reservoirs under occupation. This water reservoir has been built on Tartar River and was inaugurated in 1976. The total water capacity of the Sarsang water reservoir is 570 million m3 and the operational capacity is 560 million m3 with the inactive capacity of 60 million m3.

The normal filling level of the reservoir is 726 m, the maximum filling level is 728.5 m when discharging flood waters, inactive capacity is 662 m, the length of the water reservoir is 11.75 km in normal filling level, the width is 1.75 km, and the depth of the dam is 103 meter in a normal level.

The area of the water surface is 1,346 ha in the normal level and 270 ha in the inactive level. The border line is 50.25 km long. The height of the dam is 125 meter, the length is 555.1-meter-long, and the width from above is 10.2 meters.

We should note that the Tartar hydro complex is also made up of the Madagiz water reservoir with 5.86 million m3 water capacity and a dam, located 20 km lower than the main water reservoir as a smaller regulator.

The Madagiz water reservoir was built on Tartar River for daily distribution of water from the Sarsang water reservoir and Toragacay River. Some 80 km segment of the 92.6-km-long Tartar right and left canals, fed from the hydro junction on the Sarsang water reservoir, are under occupation. Therefore, over 56, 000 ha of lands in Tartar, Barda, Agdam, Goranboy, Yevlax and Agcabadi districts have been deliberately deprived of irrigation water for a long time and thus, the economies of these districts sustain irreparable damage every year.

The Sarsang water reservoir was primarily built for electricity production and irrigation purposes. A hydro-power station with two turbines each with 50MW was built on the water reservoir. As each turbine has the maximum 30 m3/s water discharge capacity, it was meant to discharge a total of 60 m3 water from the hydro-power station. Six flood gates were installed on the dam of the reservoir to discharge water into the river when power plant is idle. Through these water discharge devices, it is possible to discharge all in all 30 m3/s water to Tartar River through the water gates each with 5 m3 per second. It was possible to discharge 740 m3/s flood water into Tartar River throughemergency water discharge when the basin is overfilled.

When the Sarsang dam was commissioned, 240-km-long irrigation canal was built for irrigation of lands under cultivation in six districts of Azerbaijan, namely Tartar, Agdam, Goranboy, Barda, Yevlax and Agcabadi districts.

Prior to Armenia’s occupation, water discharge was regulated through two turbines with 50MW each installed on the reservoir. Thanks to it, water was flown to the irrigation canal for the irrigation of areas under crop in the abovementioned six districts of Azerbaijan. Over 100, 000 ha of lands under cultivation in lowland areas of Azerbaijan and in the territories of the abovementioned districts were irrigated with water of the main canals fed from the Sarsang water reservoir. As the Sarsang water reservoir has been under occupation, these districts have now been deprived of using water from these canals for many years.

We should underscore that for its geographical location and for the structure of the territory, the Sarsang dam is referred to one of the most structurally complex water reservoirs. Thus, the territory, where the Sarsang water reservoir is located, is hypsometrically very high and was built at a height of approximately 726 m. This fact increases the probability of horrendous consequences of a possible accident.

We should note that it is always necessary to carry out detailed on-the-spot surveys on structurally complex reservoirs, such as Sarsang, built in the area with hypsometric parameters. However, the lack of regular maintenance work for over twenty five years on the Sarsang reservoir, located in an area of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia, poses a danger to the whole border region. As mentioned above, the reservoir was commissioned in 1976, exactly, 42 years ago. The facilities and hydro-devices of the reservoir have already finished their technical exploitation lifespan. The state of disrepair of the Sarsang dam could result in a major disaster with great loss of human life and possibly a fresh humanitarian crisis.

And there are too many reasons for an accident to occur. First, an accident might be of a technical nature. As already mentioned above, facilities and hydro-devices of the water reservoir have already run out of their lifespan. For the lack of technical maintenance throughout the occupation period, an accident might happen at any time.

Second, an accident might happen for a natural disaster, a flood and for other natural phenomena. Recently, the intensity and scale of natural disasters, floods, earthquakes, etc. world-wide has gone up dramatically. These kinds of natural disasters often occur in the regions unspecific of them. One cannot rule out the probability of occurrence of such a disaster in the region of the Lesser Caucuses Mountains where the Sarsang water reservoir is located.

Finally, the likelihood of a deliberate explosion of the dam by Armenians remains high, and in case, this occurs, water might become a weapon of mass destruction in the hand of the aggressor state. The Sarsang water reservoir is under occupation of Armenia and the occupying regime has repeatedly threatened Azerbaijan with exploding the dam. As soon as international organizations step up pressure on Armenia, the aggressor state deliberately escalates the situation on the front line and carries out armed provocations. Armenia threatens Azerbaijan with the use of water factor and warns it of a possibility of blowing up the water reservoirs owned by Azerbaijan.

The trans-border Araz River is constantly polluted by Armenia with household and industrial wastes. The amount of heavy metals, toxic elements, as well as other substances dangerous for human health, the environment and agricultural products are many times over the pollution control standards. Armenia regularly floats explosives into Azerbaijan’s territory through small rivers. One of such incidents resulted in a tragedy a few years ago. A little girl from Russia on a trip to her relatives in Tovuz District was killed by a toy dog exploded in her hands when she picked it from a small trans-border river flowing from Armenia into Azerbaijan.

We wonder, what can be said about negative consequences and the scale of a possible accident at the Sarsang water reservoir? If an accident happens for any reason, the speed of water from the water reservoir does not slow. As the water basin is located higher, it flows with an increasing speed due to big kinetic energy. According to estimates of experts from the Emergencies Ministry, if an accident occurs for any reason, huge water masses will pass the 48-km distance in about 60-70 minutes to reach Barda town. The height of possible flooding in the town might reach 40-50 cm. As a result, 30,000 ha of territory will remain under water in a short space of time and water would completely destroy the infrastructure, the flora and fauna, in general, all living beings on this territory.

Given this situation, a humanitarian crisis would be inevitable in the region, since huge masses of water would flow with an increasing speed and cover 48-50 km distance within a short period (in all an hour) and destroy all living beings on its way It is impossible to evacuate people living in this area to safer places in a short time.

The population of the above-said six front line districts of Azerbaijan, deprived of using the Sarsang reservoir is 400,000. It is obvious that the lives of the population of these districts are under constant danger. A part of internally displaced people, who fled their homes following the ethnic cleansing policy of Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, has been settled in the said front line districts. These people once faced a humanitarian crisis following the ethnic cleansing policy of Armenia that followed after its armed aggression at the outset of 1990s. After many years, they are again facing a similar threat.

Thus, Azerbaijani population of lowland areas lives under danger now because of the emergency situation at the water reservoir due to the lack of the technical maintenance for many years. Furthermore, aggressor Armenia discharges water from the reservoir in winter and as a result, land is flooded, roads are washed away. However, in summer, when people and agriculture particularly need water, they halt water flow from the basin.

As a result, the organic composition on the surface of land decomposed, the agriculture was inflicted enormous damage and productivity dropped sharply. In many areas, green areas died out, the process of deforestation started, the ecological balance in the region was violated and the biodiversity was heavily damaged.

When analyzing the international and legal aspects of the emergency situation at the Sarsang water reservoir and threats this reservoir pose for the surrounding districts, its ownership is considered one of the most important issues from the international legal point of view. When it comes to the issue of ownership, it should be noted that the Sarsang water reservoir was constructed in the territory of Azerbaijan and at its expense. The Sarsang water reservoir is located within the internationally-recognized borders of Azerbaijan and is Azerbaijan’s property.

We should underscore that since 1992, the Sarsang water reservoir has been under occupation of Armenia. The international legal norms consider illegal and bans any activities with regard to the facilities on the occupied lands by an occupying country. Under international legal norms, an occupying country is responsible for any accident that happens or might happen for any activity or inactivity on an occupied territory. Thus, Armenia undoubtedly bears legal responsibility under international norms for any humanitarian and environmental crisis, which might happen as a result of an accident at the Sarsang reservoir for various reasons.

Under such circumstances, what steps should be taken to prevent a possible accident at the Sarsang water reservoir, as well as a humanitarian and environmental crisis that might happen as a result of such an accident?

We should take into consideration that the problem of Sarsang water reservoir cannot be regarded as a separate problem. This problem has emerged as a result of Armenia’s armed aggression against Azerbaijan, the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories of Azerbaijan by Armenia, and the continuation of this occupation for more than 25 years and it should only be looked into in this context. On other hand, it is impossible to achieve a long-term solution to this problem without the liberation of Azerbaijan’s territories from occupation. Therefore, the territories of Azerbaijan must be immediately liberated from Armenia’s occupation. For this to happen, the world community should respect international legal norms, be unbiased and compel the occupying state of Armenia to swiftly end the occupation by using all available mechanisms both universally and regionally. Finally, once the occupation is over, the technical examination of the Sarsang water reservoir should be conducted immediately by experts, appropriate restoration and reconstruction works should be done, the irrigation network should be upgraded in accordance with modem requirements.