Sunday, March 30, 2008

Yerevan: City or Desert

One of the most distressing thoughts to me is the potential effect of the current state of environmental degradation on Armenia.

I watched “Yerevan: City or Desert” this week. It explains how the energy crisis of the ‘90s and the current construction boom have led to Armenia’s severe deforestation, and its subsequent environmental and health problems.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and Armenia’s independence in September 1991, the population suffered tremendously. All of life’s necessities were scarce, including energy. With the country’s gas and electricity cut off, the population resorted to cutting down trees. It’s hard to ask a father of four during the freezing Yerevan winter to think about the long-term consequences of cutting down a tree and burning it in order to keep his family warm. One of the results from the 1992-1995 energy crisis was the significant deforestation of Armenia and the destruction of its green spaces. Even today, up to 70% of the wood consumed in Armenia is for heating and cooking purposes.

Armenians have overcome an enormous amount during the span of their centuries old civilization- empires, conquests, genocide, natural disasters. After the economic collapse that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia is finally overcoming this obstacle and enjoying yet another rebirth. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the perceived economic “growth” and “progress” of the country may actually be leading to its demise. Corrupt government official give away permits to build on designated green space with no regard to the current or future state of the country and its population. This construction is even encroaching on once-fertile land (pretty rare in this rocky region) that has no chance of being used by farmers again. Permits are given to builders rather than the farmers who have cultivated the land for years. This short-sightedness and greed on behalf of the government is really saddening, particularly because most of the “regular folks” in Yerevan truly care about the state of their beloved city. One of the ladies interviewed in the short film boasted about a time when tree coverage was so prevalent in Yerevan that you could walk across the entire city and avoid any exposure to the sun. The city’s admired planner, Alexander Tamanian, had also developed a plan where you could walk from one side of the city to the other through only green spaces. Yet, because of past Soviet intervention and the current corrupt government officials, this once beautiful and lush city is facing an ugly reality. Even more, as green space in the ever-growing capital goes down, a larger percentage of the population experiences upper respiratory diseases, allergies, asthma, and certain types of cancer.

The effort to combat this problem is multi-pronged. There needs to be sustainable economic development with consideration given to assigned green spaces, and with actual force behind it. The population also needs sustainable income as to not resort to illegal logging (another problem- one of Armenia’s top exports is wood). And most definitely, the country needs a stable and clean source of energy (what energy it does have is foreign owned, like much of its other industries) so Armenians don’t have to cut down the lungs and beauty of their country.

If you’d like to learn more or are interested in helping, check out the Armenian Tree Project.

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