Mount Ararat towers over Armenia's arid Ararat Valley.

Mount Ararat towers over Armenia's arid Ararat Valley. Adalyan / Dreamstime

As Armenian Fish Farming Expands, a Pristine Aquifer Is Drying Up

In recent decades, aquaculture has proliferated in Armenia’s Ararat Valley. The heightened use of water, combined with a warming climate and increased drought, has led to groundwater reserves shrinking by two-thirds, once-bountiful farms withering, and wells going dry.

On an overcast morning this past spring, Gegham Muradyan searches for signs of water trickling through the dry soils of Armenia’s Ararat Valley. In an opening between two stone houses in the village of Dalar, some 15 miles southwest of Yerevan, the nation’s capital, he finds a single pipe protruding from knots of weeds.

A hydrometeorologist at Armenia’s Ministry of Environment, Muradyan holds a measuring cup beneath the water flowing from the pipe and notes the time it takes to fill. He does a quick calculation, then records the well discharge rate — an indicator of underground water pressure — in a logbook. Over the past year, the rate has dropped from 850 milliliters per second to 570 milliliters. “That’s very serious for this one,” he says.

For several years, Muradyan and his colleagues have crisscrossed this region to record the depth and velocity of groundwater at wells and boreholes. In 2016, they surveyed more than 2,800 sites — the most comprehensive analysis performed since the early 1980s. Their painstaking work has confirmed that the aquifer has shrunk from more than 32,000 hectares, in 1983, to just over 10,000 hectares. In some parts of the valley, the water table has dropped as much as 49 feet.

Years of overexploiting groundwater in the Ararat Valley have brought the aquifer to a crisis point.

Muradyan knows why. “Look around,” he says, pointing toward the horizon. “Do you see those?” Barely perceptible in the distance are rows and rows of concrete vats filled with fish.

Years of overexploiting groundwater in the Ararat Valley have brought the aquifer to a crisis point. Today, the valley hosts more than 200 documented fish farms, with potentially dozens more operating without permits. Together they are responsible for more than half of the region’s annual groundwater consumption, according to data collected by the U.S. Agency for International Development — more than irrigation, industrial, and household use combined.

Rainfall and snowmelt replenish the aquifer, but climate change has reduced these flows. Now, despite government efforts to shut down illegal wells and encourage water reuse on fish farms, experts say more needs to be done to preserve this vital natural resource.

The Ararat Valley, which lies along the Turkish border and is home to roughly 260,000 people, is the nation’s agricultural hub. Its prized apricots and pears, its melons and vegetables, have long thrived thanks to the valley’s artesian aquifer, which holds an estimated 2 billion cubic meters of water, equivalent to about 800,000 Olympic swimming pools.

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But today, a bird’s-eye view of the region would reveal a stark contrast: a dusty, brown landscape dotted with striking blocks of blue and green. These tanks are filled with native trout, salmon, and sturgeon, most of which will be exported to Russia.

Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing food sector, according to the United Nations. But commercial fish farming is relatively new in Armenia, and an unlikely industry for a mountainous, landlocked country. The government first granted water extraction permits in the 2000s, allowing dozens of entrepreneurs to tap into the valley’s aquifer. Hydrologists say those early permits allowed aquaculturists to set up too many wells that pumped too much water, and that the permits were granted without an understanding of how much extraction the aquifer could handle.

“It was not good management and not a long-term vision for the Ararat Valley,” says Alexander Arakelyan, a hydrologist at Armenia’s Institute of Geological Sciences, who works with Muradyan.

Nowadays, aspiring fish farmers pay about $1,000 for a water permit, according to Muradyan. But once they’ve done that, the clean, cold water is virtually free — fish farmers can fill an entire tank, about 280,000 liters, for just a few dollars. It’s not surprising, then, that the valley quickly became a hotspot for enterprising aquaculturists, who caused extensive groundwater depletion in just a few years.

The Ararat Valley, which receives just 8 to 10 inches of precipitation yearly, is likely to become even drier.

As fish farming has grown, groundwater withdrawals in the Ararat Valley have far surpassed the aquifer’s rate of replenishment. The problem was first discovered in 2013, when groundwater withdrawals were more than 1.5 times the sustainable level. Three years later, nothing had changed. Users withdrew 1 billion cubic meters more than the aquifer’s natural recharge amount for that year.

“If we keep using [the aquifer] indiscriminately,” says Muradyan, “the time will come when it cannot recover.”

For a time, the problem seemed to be under control. In 2016, the Ministry of Environment attempted to close illegal farms and plug some of the valley’s unused, free-flowing wells. But now the warming climate — which enhances evaporation, triggers more drought and ramps up water demand — is exacerbating the crisis, says Alexander Arakelyan, a hydrologist at the Institute of Geological Sciences in Armenia.

Groundwater is the most important source of water for at least half of the world’s households and supports about a quarter of the world’s irrigation systems. But as the planet warms, water scarcity is expected to affect two-thirds of the world’s population by mid-century, according to the U.N.

Fish farmer Asatur Muradyan at his operation in the Ararat Valley.

Fish farmer Asatur Muradyan at his operation in the Ararat Valley. MELISSA BURNES / USAID - ARMENIA

The Ararat Valley, which has historically received just 8 to 10 inches of precipitation a year, is likely to become even drier. The United Nations Development Programme predicts rainfall will decrease by about 8 percent by 2100. “Armenia is warming much faster than expected,” says Naira Aslanyan, climate change coordinator at the UNDP in Yerevan.

This past winter, the lack of snowpack dramatically shifted the basin’s timeframe for regeneration. Usually, the water table rises until April as snow from the surrounding mountains melts into the valley’s recharge zones. But in 2022, the regeneration season ended in February, according to Muradyan. This year, he says, the water table started declining even earlier — in January.

The consequences of a decade of unmitigated groundwater abstraction and increasing climate pressures are already emerging, sometimes miles away from the heaviest users. Gevorg Avakian grows strawberries, eggplants, and grapes on a small farm in the village of Aknashen. Up until 2016, water flowed freely from an artesian well on the edge of his property, between the chicken pen and a few rows of grape vines.

“It’s not the right approach if we think that we can bring water from other places to close the deficit,” says a hydrologist.

In 2016, Muradyan helped install a deeper well on Avakian’s property to replace one that had dried up. But even this one is dying. “It’s only going down and down,” says Avakian. “You can see the fields around me. They’re all yellow. That’s because the water isn’t coming.” Avakian found the money to install a pump on his dry well, but it’s expensive to operate.

In more than 30 communities dotting the valley, residential wells are now too shallow to reach the ever-dropping water table. Villagers — not all of whom have access to municipal water supplies, which draw on reservoirs — have watched their wells dry up in the space of a few short years. Like Avakian, they are forced to either dig deeper or install costly pumps.

Farmers who partly depend on the aquifer for irrigation are increasingly reliant on water discharges from Lake Sevan — a large, freshwater lake about 45 miles northeast of the Ararat Valley that is already suffering from algal blooms and low water levels. This summer, the Armenian government agreed to discharge 240 million cubic meters of water from the imperiled lake to service shortfalls around the country, even though the annual maximum is set at 170 million cubic meters.

Farmland in the Ararat Valley.

Farmland in the Ararat Valley. WIRESTOCK, INC. / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

“It’s not the right approach if we think that we can bring water from other places to close the deficit,” says Arakelyan.

Still, many local fish farmers won’t accept that they’re part of the problem. Samvel Lablajyan, based outside of Hayanist village, insists nothing has changed on his plot of land. “The water isn’t going down, and it isn’t going up, either,” he says. “This situation will work for 100,000 years.”

In other parts of the Valley, Lablajyan concedes, “there are places where the water is decreasing naturally.” He blames climate change. “There’s no rain, the winds are stronger, everything on the Earth is changing,” he says.

Groundwater is not evenly distributed beneath the Earth’s surface, so some areas may feel the pinch of depletion more than others — at least for now. Fish farmers like Lablajyan, says Arakelyan, will inevitably come face-to-face with the problem. “We need to [make] these businesses understand that this environment is for everyone, it’s not a private thing,” he says.

After harvesting their fish, most farmers drain their nitrogen-rich water into the nearby Aras River.

Experts say all of the basin’s residents have to face reality: The years of insatiable extraction have caught up with them. “We don’t want to get to a situation where we have a massive water shortage, and we’re not that far off,” says Garabet Kazanjian, an aquatic ecology researcher at the American University of Armenia. “What are we going to do then?”

Powerful economic interests have stymied any reforms of aquaculture. After years of economic hardship, fewer Armenians are choosing to work the land. Many young people have moved to the city or left the country altogether. Creating employment opportunities for the remaining rural population is more important than ever.

Fish farms annually produce more than 18,000 tons of commercial fish, most of which is exported to Russia, according to the Ministry of Economy. Russian consumers have a taste for Armenian red and black caviar, as well as its trout and sturgeon — varieties that are too expensive to be viable on Armenian grocery shelves. The farms also employ local villagers. Artyom Torosyan’s business, called Svet Fish, recruits 10 people from Hovtashat, a village of about 3,000. Dozens of other fish farms do the same.

Fish farms in the Ararat Valley use groundwater to raise trout, sturgeon, and other fish, most of which are exported to Russia.

Fish farms in the Ararat Valley use groundwater to raise trout, sturgeon, and other fish, most of which are exported to Russia. Janet Carter / USGS

Torosyan’s expansive business is impossible to miss on Hovtashat’s Yerkatughayinner (metal works) Street. His elaborate, brass-trimmed gates stand out on the dirt road, where a half-mile of dilapidated factories once produced car parts and machinery. Torosyan believes he’s part of revitalizing the country’s economy and its global status, he says, because 90 percent of his product goes abroad.

Still, Torosyan calls himself one of the unlucky fish farmers: neighboring farms have about five permitted wells each, he says, whereas he has a permit for only one. And so Torosyan, like other aquaculturists without enough water, implemented water-saving measures out of need.

After harvesting their fish, most farmers drain their nitrogen-rich water into the nearby Aras River, which flows to the Turkish border. The process is both wasteful and polluting. On Torosyan’s farm, a system filters the water, reoxygenates it, and then reroutes it to another tank, ready to host several hundred more fish.

The pace of depletion will determine whether the fish farming industry can continue to operate.

Torosyan built the recirculating system himself, importing materials from China, Russia, and the European Union, and he believes his efforts could be a blueprint for the region’s other fish farms. But while recirculating systems result in higher fish production with less water use, the capital investment — from $16,000 to $130,000, depending on the size of the farm — can be prohibitive for smaller farms, according to research from the International Centre for Agribusiness Research and Education, an agricultural NGO based in Yerevan.

Nor do relatively water-rich fish farms have any incentive to invest in building a sustainable system, says Torosyan. “The fish farms around me have a lot of water already,” he says. “They don’t use these kinds of processes.”

Still, local environmental authorities are encouraging widespread adoption of recirculating systems. In January, the Ministry of Environment gave fish farms one year to install them, but experts on the ground have not seen any progress. “I’m not so sure that it will be done by January because it requires a lot of money and effort from businesses,” says Arakelyan. And without government subsidies to make the upgrades, smaller businesses might close if the deadline remains. “As usual in Armenia,” Arakelyan adds, “everything will happen at the last moment.”

Even for an enterprising operator like Torosyan, there might not be much water left to recirculate within a few decades. The pace of depletion will determine whether the fish farming industry can continue to operate. “If the water runs out,” Torosyan says, “we’re all going to be in trouble.”