Autumn 1994 (2.3)
Perennial Water Shortages
by Betty Blair
Left: Restaurant in Baku patterning architecture on ancient caravanserai with well as central feature. June 1994.
If there's one thing on everybody's mind these days in Baku, it's water. You hear it all the time. Someone will tell you they haven't had water for two days. The next person will say it's been five days...or two weeks...or even a month. Access to water is so unreliable lately that it's hard to meet a person who hasn't been directly affected-even at the best hotels where foreign dignitaries stay or the apartments of top level government officials.
What complicates the issue is that there is never any warning-no television or radio announcements-to help people feel more in control and more able to anticipate when the water will be cut or when it will eventually be restored. People have simply learned not to rely on water at all. They've stopped asking why there is none.
Coping When There's No Water
It's impossible to understand how severe the problem is by seeing how well-dressed and well-groomed people look on the streets. Appearances are deceiving. It's a cultural value to always appear attractive no matter how difficult.
How do they manage? Not without an incredible expenditure of time and effort, especially on the part of women. They cope the best they can. There's always a friend or relative in some other part of the city who has water where they can wash and shower. Life goes on but it's a consuming headache for everybody. Everything suffers. Work almost comes to a halt. Hospitals and clinics, day care centers and schools struggle incredibly to maintain hygienic conditions. More often than not, it's impossible.
An Old Problem
It's not that there have never been problems before. Some people in Baku can't remember a time when there weren't difficulties. It's just that now the shortages much more prevalent and severe.
Water pressure has always posed difficulties especially for those living in apartments on the top floors. Many families have built storage tanks in the ceilings of their bathrooms so that if, and when, the water flows in the middle of the night, the tanks can refill for the next day's usage. Some people use their bathtubs as storage tanks.
A century ago, cool drinking water was distributed from clay pots. Private postcard collection: courtesy, Yakub Karimov.
The Question of Water Quality
Apart from the problem of accessibility, there's the perpetual problem of clean water. In most apartments, the tap water is quite murky and cloudy; an amazing amount of particles float around in suspension in a glass of water, for example. Most people don't realize what causes this turbidity.
Everyone knows to boil the water to kill the bacteria and reduce organic content; but boiling may not eliminate everything that is harmful in the water. Fortunately, the hospitality drink is tea which has to be boiled but it only takes a few days before a thick, beige-colored deposit crusts on the bottom of the teakettle. All of this may suggest that the water filtration and purification process currently in operation does not bring the water quality to a healthy acceptable standard.
Women blame the water for their poor complexions and thinning hair. Doctors say the water's hardness leads to kidney and gall stones. During the hot, dry months, especially in summer, people simply don't drink enough water to flush out the excess minerals.
Bottled water is available, though it used to be easier to obtain. Nakhchivan has many springs including the famous Badamli Su. But transportation links between this Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan mainland have been cut off ever since Armenians destroyed the stretch of railway that runs through their own territory separating these two parts of Azerbaijan. Georgia's Barzham Spring Waters used to be very popular among Azerbaijanis but now only limited supplies reach Baku because of Georgia's internal conflicts. Azerbaijanis no longer have access to their own famous springs in Shusha and Kelbajar since these cities are among the 20% of Azerbaijani territories now occupied by Armenians.
The price of foreign imported water at $1 a bottle is prohibitive for the majority who earn less than $10 a month. Foreigners who work long-term in Azerbaijan often swap stories about shipping in cartons of bottled water. Some swear they would never ever brush their teeth with local supplies.
What's the problem?
On the surface, it's simple. The system is obsolete. The equipment has worn out. Parts have broken and not been replaced. Pipes have rusted. There has been no consistent maintenance for years and now an estimated 50-60% of the water is lost due to leakage.
But the real cause of the problem runs much deeper. Pipes rust everywhere in the world. Machines break down. The more fundamental question relates to the organization of the system. The fundamental question relates to ownership. Who owned the water? Under the Soviet system, the State did and people were not even able to "buy" the commodity.
And it is this system that Azerbaijan has inherited today. There were no water meters in apartment complexes to measure usage. Clients who used water sparingly paid the same as those who wasted it. Consequently, there was no way to make the system sustain itself.
But this free access, in turn, bred carelessness, contempt, and lack of communal concern. The problem was not unique to the use of water in Azerbaijan. It was the same with gas and electricity and telephones.
Many admitted that as long as they had water, it wasn't their problem if somebody else didn't. They felt they couldn't do anything about it anyway?" In the meantime, "the haves" let their faucets run wide open, pipes leaked, toilets ran all night and broken washers and faucets went unrepaired.
Few people made the effort to report problems. They didn't feel responsible. Those who did complain rarely felt it was worth the effort. The people had no leverage against the State as they were recipients of commodities that were free. They had no clout, no voice and they couldn't hold the State responsible when there was no competition and no way to take their business some place else. And so the State was able to enforce a "take it, or leave it" attitude.
The system also bred deliberate attempts to cover up problems. Naturally, those in positions of authority tried to hide problems that might jeopardize their jobs. Such was the case even as it related to health. Farida Kazvinova, a young doctor in her mid-30s, remembers that water quality was always a problem. "In the summers in the early 80s when there were outbreaks of cholera and hepatitis, we were never allowed to disclose the danger to the people. They told us, 'Just caution the patients to always boil the water'."
Essentially, the water problems are the legacy passed down from the Soviet system. It's just that the consequences of neglect have reached such critical levels that they can't be ignored or covered up anymore. There's only one solution, they have to be fixed.
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.