Fixing the Future
Perennial Water Shortages in Baku
by Betty Blair
If there's one thing on everybody's minds 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 has been 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.
To complicate the issue, there is never any warning - no TV or radio announcements to help people feel more in control and able to anticipate when the water will be shut off or eventually restored. People have simply learned not to rely on water at all. They've stopped asking why there is none.
Coping Without Water
The problem may not seem so severe when you see how well dressed and well groomed Azerbaijanis are. But appearances can be deceiving. It's a common practice to always appear attractive, no matter how difficult that may be.
How do they manage? Not without spending a great deal of time and effort, especially on the part of women. They cope the best they can. There always seems to be a friend or relative who lives in another part of the city who can provide a place to wash and shower. Life goes on, but it's a headache that consumes everybody. Everything suffers. Work almost comes to a halt. Hospitals, clinics, day care centers and schools struggle against the odds to maintain hygienic conditions.
It's not as if Baku has never had these problems before. Some people who live here can't remember a time when there weren't difficulties. It's just that now the shortages are much more prevalent and severe.
Lack of water pressure has always posed difficulties, especially for those living in apartments on the upper floors. Many families have placed storage tanks in the ceilings of their bathrooms. If, and when, the water flows in the middle of the night, the tanks can refill to hold the next day's supply. Nor is it unusual for people to use their bathtubs to store water as well.
Poor Water Quality
Apart from the problem of accessibility, there's the perpetual problem of not having clean water to drink. In most apartments, the tap water is quite murky and cloudy; for example, a surprisingly large amount of particles float around in suspension in a glass of water. Most people don't know what causes this problem.
Everyone knows to boil water to kill bacteria and reduce organic content, but boiling may not eliminate everything that is harmful in the water. Fortunately, the drink of hospitality is tea, which has to be boiled. Nevertheless, it only takes a few days for a thick, beige-colored deposit to crust on the bottom of the teakettle. All of this may suggest that the water filtration and purification process does not bring the water quality up to acceptable health standards.
Women blame the water for poor complexions and thinning hair. Doctors say the water's hardness leads to kidney stones and gallstones. 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. However, transportation links between this region and the Azerbaijan mainland have been cut off ever since Armenians destroyed the stretch of railway that runs through the Armenian territory separating these two sections of Azerbaijan. Georgia's Borjomi 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 Kalbajar because these cities are among the Azerbaijani territories now occupied by Armenians.
The price of foreign imported water at $1 a bottle is too prohibitive for the majority of Azerbaijanis, 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 brush their teeth with the local water supply. [Since this article was first published, several companies have started bottling Azerbaijani water, the first of which was Shollar. The price is less expensive than imported water, but still too costly for many families].
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. For years, there has been no consistent maintenance; today an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the water is lost because of leakage.
Maintenance and Ownership
But the real root 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. Who owns the water? Under the Soviet system, the State did. People could not even "buy" the commodity.
This is the system that Azerbaijan has inherited. Apartment complexes do not have water meters to measure usage, since the people who used water sparingly paid the same amount as those who wasted it. Consequently, there was no way to make the system sustain itself. This unlimited access, in turn, bred carelessness, contempt and lack of communal concern for the water supply. This problem was not restricted to the use of water, however. It was the same with other utilities such as 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 were left unrepaired.
Few people made the effort to report problems. They didn't feel responsible. Those who did try to complain rarely felt it was worth the effort. The people had no leverage against the State, as they were recipients of a free commodity. They had no clout, no voice and they couldn't hold the State responsible. Since there was no competition, they couldn't take their business someplace else. And so the State was able to adopt a "take it or leave it" attitude.
The system also bred deliberate attempts to cover up problems. Those who were in positions of authority tried to hide problems that might jeopardize their jobs. Public health problems were no exception. Farida Kazvinova, a doctor in her mid-30s, remembers that water quality has always been a problem. "In the summers of the early 1980s, 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, these water problems are part of the legacy passed down from the Soviet system. But now 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.