|A View From the Inside|
We head to Meghri at least once a month to oversee progress on our community organization project, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
To break the drive into manageable pieces, this usually means a three-day trip. The first night in Goris, early the next morning to Meghri, back the same day, and then a night in Goris again. Back to Yerevan on Day 3.
This time, from Goris, we started our drive to Meghri at 7 am. It was still dark and it was raining and I really didn't feel like driving anywhere, let alone for three hours. A hot cup of tea, a book and a lazy morning at the cozy Mirhav Hotel in Goris would have been such a wonderful beginning for this day. Instead we left Mirhav, climbed into our car and set off for Meghri. The good thing about leaving for Meghri early in the morning is the lack of highway police that would otherwise slow us down and make the already tiring trip even longer. Tiring is of course an understatement. Three mountain ranges to go over, lots of sharp turns, not an easy ride. Meghri really is at the end of the world.
With a lot of potholes and some Iranian trucks (the number used to be higher) we arrived at Meghri in less than three hours (I’m that good!). Aram, our local Iranian-Armenian construction manager, was waiting for us with coffee and some crackers. I thought, ‘let’s make it a real breakfast’ and stopped at a local grocery to buy some bread and cheese and juice and sour cream. It was almost 10:00 but the local shopkeeper was barely awake so it took her almost ten minutes to calculate the totals.
With all the breakfast goodies we arrived where Aram rents a room. It’s been several months since we saw him last and he had a lot to tell us -- about the project, the political situation in Iran, our initiatives, family issues and his life in Iran after the plane crash. He had lost his sister and sister's husband when that Iranian plane crashed right after takeoff, on its way to Yerevan two months ago. We talked about an hour. He’s here helping us renovate the underwater well and tunnel (chahrezes) systems in two border villages in Meghri. We talked about that, about sheep, about Areni wine promotion, and got all the way to the possibility of a seminar in Tehran on our rural projects.
Several months ago, Varuzhan, the mayor of Alvank, proposed to assist him (either by partnering or by a loan) in establishing a sheep-breeding farm in Alvank. We said we would look into it and Aram agreed to research the matter in Iran to find potential partners. Aram seemed enthusiastic about this project, as he had met with several businesses in Tehran and saw the potential of sheep breeding in the Meghri region (especially taking into consideration the recent developments of this business, when almost all Iranian trucks that transport goods to Armenia are returning with purchased sheep). A sheep in Armenia usually costs somewhere around $100; the price is double in Iran and due to the tradition of sacrificing a sheep for every occasion in Iran (Aram says making-out with your girlfriend is a good enough reason for sacrificing a sheep) and considering the size of Iran, there is a large potential market.
Concluding that we would to talk to Varuzhan more on this project, we left for Alvank to see about the chahriz project, which is being supported by the SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation). The construction/rehabilitation phase of the project is almost over, with some ten days to go.
When we arrived in the region, we learned that both Alvank and Shvanidzor are included in the government’s community access road reconstruction project that is implemented with a loan from the World Bank. The reconstruction of the access roads is in full progress now and due to the reconstruction work, we had to park the car and walk to the chahrezes, with me whining that this was a lot of walking and Sona and Anushavan eating mosh (blackberries) and Aram surprised that the berries were actually edible.
The renovation was apparent starting right with the openings or the mouth of the wells; the openings were new well-like constructions to protect the system from heavy rainfall and accidents; the refurbished openings looked very natural and authentic, just the way we intended.
Varuzhan, the mayor, was very excited, following up on the work done by the construction workers and making sure that everything was implemented correctly. With an overall understanding of the process, we moved toward the barn that Varuzhan wants to use for the sheep project.
It is a large building that was built at the end of 1980s as everything else was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The building, in comparison to a similar one in the neighboring Shvanidzor village, looked OK. The roof is almost intact, the walls and the inner divisions are fine as well. The building lacks windows and doors and needs some minor changes. The water access that used to be functional is not anymore (as part of the water pipe was used in a different project) but according to Varuzhan, it will not take a major investment to restore the access to water.
After agreeing that Varuzhan would make some calculations and send us a business plan with financial requirements, we set off for Shvanidzor.
The chahrez well construction in Shvanidzor was almost complete, but the material used for construction was not the nice stone that was used in Alvank that gave it the authentic look. Instead, they used simple wall blocks, as the mayor specifically insisted on this type of construction material. Overall, Hovhannes, (the mayor of Shvanidzor community) was happy with the construction and we agreed that he would try to talk to the factory again for the water tanks that we had promised (the tanks will be used to collect the chahrez water overnight and will be used to provide water to the community, as currently almost 15 tons of water is wasted due to the lack of a reservoir or a tank that would collect the water that is currently being wasted).
Hovhannes complained that the condition of the chahrezes in Shvanidzor is not good, and that the increased amount of rainfall this year made it harder for them to keep up with the cleanup of the system. We agreed that the mayor would calculate the overall costs of the cleanup and send them to us to determine if there is funding left in the budget to support this initiative.
With a long road ahead toward Goris, we said goodbye and left. In Goris we met Artashes, our community mobilizer, and talked about the various issues he faces in these two communities of Shvanidzor and Alvank. According to him, the Shvanidzor water management board conducts meetings regularly and they are currently involved in a process of putting together a mechanism for water management that will involve the creation of an organization that will include the water management board and the community administration to be responsible for collecting the water fees and managing the funds.
Alvank, on the other hand, is still in a political battle about who should take the role of leader of the water management board. According to Artashes, there is still work that needs to be done but overall the existing issues will not become a serious obstacle for the success of the water management board, which is currently involved in compiling their mechanisms and functions.