Letter 14: They simply did without: Water and Energy Shortages in Armenia

September 2003
The Blackout in North America this August is now almost forgotten. Yet I cannot help remember the number of times we thought we should teach these former Soviet Republics how to conserve energy. How they could make more airtight windows to keep the heat, how they can save water... This last item, water, is a sore point with me. I am now back in Yeghegnadzor, trying to renovate the house we bought, and I am frustrated that drinking-water only comes sometimes through my pipes-- for no more than one hour per day--while my neighbor downhill leaves his outside tap open to water his garden.

Yes, Soviet culture was based on energy and water supplies provided to every household. This surely led to unwise consumption and waste. I remember when Sheila used to keep shutting-off the kitchen tap in our host family’s home, which was left running when washing dishes. She tried to make a point of it. One day, she did that in front of some guests. Our housemother quickly exclaimed: Oh I’m sorry, I forgot, Sheila likes to conserve water. The guest wondered: Do you not have enough water in Canada? Sheila said: Of course we do, and proceeded to explain how much water Canada had. The guest surmised: Then your large bodies of water must not be clean for household use!… Moral of the story: When you’ve got plenty for free, not even the smallest effort (such as turning a tap off – let alone fixing a leaky tap) needs to be made to conserve the resource… Yet Armenia, while having the world’s purest and tastiest waters, cannot be considered a country with water surplus... When we were in Yerevan, City water only came twice a day, 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the evening. The rest of the time, people relied on filling-up bathtubs for their daily supply, or if they could afford it, install a reserve tank.

In 2003, Armenia decided to charge people for water usage. House and apartment owners were asked to purchase and install a water-meter; failing that they would be charged a much larger amount per month for water usage. A move that was welcome by some, but shocked so many others: Imagine, they said, now they want to sell us our own water! It is expected that this measure alone, will allow people in Yerevan to finally enjoy permanent water availability. I even heard that the pressure in the water system became so over-elevated when a substantial number of households in a neighborhood installed meters and fixed leaky taps that some sections of the network burst. Of course, there are also so many who cannot afford to buy a water-meter (about US $ 15).

A similar kind of a solution was devised to alleviate the energy shortages of the mid-nineties. First, the gas pipelines were blown-up by Azeri saboteurs. The people of Armenia spent almost three years freezing in the dark. The Government forced people to install electric-meters. Butane tanks became common practice, then natural gas returned and gas was provided to those who installed gas-meters and paid for their consumption. I must say, it seems to have worked, for I do not recall a blackout in Armenia during the year we spent there.

I have another anecdote that sheds some light on what happened. This past winter was the coldest on record in Armenia. Before knowing about this, we, as environmentally-conscious Canadians installed plastic sheets on all our windows to conserve the heat (and hopefully feel more comfortable). We noticed however that very few Armenian households had done the same. The cost was minimal (for us). It came to about US $ 10 to do all windows in our apartment. It wasn’t the most elegant thing, but we felt good about doing this. I was curious to see how our electric bill would compare with that of our neighbors this winter.

In Yerevan, householders do not get individual bills in the mail for their electric consumption. Instead, every apartment building gets one single printout that shows the electric consumption of each apartment and the amount to pay for each. The printout is posted at the building’s entrance for all to see. One then goes to the Post-office to pay one’s bill. It is therefore very easy to know what your neighbors consumed. Can you imagine my surprise when month after month this winter our electric bill surpassed that of all our native-Armenian neighbors by three-folds. Yes, despite our energy conservation efforts, extra insulation etc., we were far behind our native-Armenian neighbours in saving energy! And no! I checked, nobody was siphoning-off our electricity. So how could that happen? Did they go to Florida for the winter? Wrong again, they were still there. They simply did without.

Before we returned to Canada on June 7, we spent our last night again with our host family. We had moved-out of our apartment and they, with their usual generosity, offered us their bedroom. When I went to the bathroom in the morning to have a shower, there was no hot water. They had unplugged the water heater and had not remembered to turn it back on for us.

Who are the winners, and who are the losers in this?
Among the winners are people like us, on the top of the mountain, who are the last in the queue to receive their share of “free” water, and who will finally get some. How many of us are there? A small minority, I suspect. Next come the civil servants who administer the distribution networks: They get to add their salaries to the distribution / meter-reading costs and they finally get paid. The manufacturers of electric and water meters are also winners because they realize sales to about a million Armenian households, keep in mind, all these meters are imported. So the people who hardly used water before, and conserved energy are penalized. They are forced to pay for imported meters. Yet again had there been no suspected waste of water and energy, would we have embarked on such an endeavour?

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