“This is my little jewel,” says Ms. Gadrani, a plain woman in black as she points to a clear spring. “Its cold waters come all the way to my house. How could I abandon it and all the land around it?”
Here deep in Georgia’s Upper Caucasus mountains, lush meadows and neat vegetable lots dot the banks of the Nenskra river. If the government has its way, the lands used by the Gadrani family should give way to a power house for a dam several kilometres upstream. The family has already been offered an apartment in the city if it moves out. She dismisses the offer though: “What would we be without the land? How could we look into our children’s eyes?”
Like a majority of the other 300 households in the community of Chuberi, the Gadranis live off of the land that has been passed down from generation to generation through the customary law of the indigenous Svans. They use communal hayfields, pastures and forests. A part of these lands would be flooded though, if Georgia builds the 280 megawatt Nenskra hydropower plant, a billion dollar project funded by Korean investors and international development banks.
Yet so far Georgia has not planned for how it will restore the livelihoods of those in Chuberi should their lands be sacrificed for Nenskra’s reservoir. This dire situation is compounded by the fact that because of the altitude and long winters, subsistence agriculture does not produce enough to feed the families. Only caring for animals and forestry provide some income, in addition to the tiny grocery stores that sell the basics.
400 kilometres from Chuberi, the fate of these lands are being debated in Tbilisi. At present different ministries are unclear about the ownership of the land, which were once owned by the state and then taken out of a forestry fund under the administration of previous President Saakashvili. The state-owned Partnership Fund is now negotiating terms of a 35-year concession under which the Korean investor would build and operate the Nenskra hydro power plant and then transfer it back to the state.
However, little of this has been discussed with the people of Chuberi. Abandoned by the local administration, residents have become self-reliant. Apart from marginal contributions from the local budget – which aren’t even enough to repair potholes in the unpaved road, a rudimental community center and two schools where a team of devoted teachers tries their best to change their barren look – there are no public services. To see a doctor, villagers need to travel 75 kilometres to the city of Mestia.
During the first week of June, a delegation of state officials and representatives from the Korean investor organised a meeting in Chuberi to present the plans for a Nenskra dam. Villagers would later recall that no one received an official notification about the meeting nor was information presented about how the project would impact their lives. Promises of employment were received with collective skepticism.
“No short-term construction job can compensate us for the loss of lands” insist the villagers. Some have already experienced what it is like to lose one’s land, having settled in the village after displacement from war-torn Abkhazia in the 1990s. Others recall the resettlement in the 1970s of villages downstream to make way for the unfinished Khudoni dam. Unable to adjust to new lives, many returned back to their homeland.
The majority of families in Chuberi are Svan, an ethnic subgroup of Georgia’s Caucasus mountains with their own language, laws and traditions. The Svan way of life and the picturesque landscape make the area a popular tourist destination, beginning during the Soviet era when developing into a hub for trekkers and mountaineers crossing the range into Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union and the conflict in nearby Abkhazia has hampered tourist potential with the closing of passes, tourist camps and mountain huts.
In Chuberi and Nakra, Svans have not given up on a vision of tourism as a means to developing the region. In Nakra, villagers recently repaired a thermal spring, and some families plant to open rustic family hostels and provide accommodation to the handful of foreign tourists who from time to time pass through the villages. But without suitable infrastructure and investment, the development of tourism is slow-moving.
Ironically though, in an area slated for hydropower developments, electricity is unreliable and subject to fluctuations. Households cannot use appliances regularly, and about eight of the computers at the school in Chuberi were ruined by voltage fluctuations. A Czech distribution company called Energo-Pro operates the power lines and rehabilitated the one to Mestia, the regional tourist hub, but this has done little to improve the supply in Chuberi or Nakra. While community development is concentrated in Mestia, with the government providing money for improvements to roads, plumbing and the renovatation of the historic centre, the needs of small communities like Chuberi and Nakra go unnoticed.
The unfilled promises about better infrastructure in Nakra are also about more to locals than just roads and schools – the area desperately needs some form of flood management. Tributaries of the Lekvedari and Leknashera rivers bring landslides and runoff into local’s yards.
In 2010 the Leknashera river washed out the cemetery and agriculture fields. Nine years before, the Lekvedari river destroyed a portion of farm land and carried away a tractor of a family living at its banks. Locals have long called for a protection system that would prevent further mudslides.
With the construction of Nenskra, the situation would only get worse. The project includes a dam on the Nakra river to deviate water through a channel to the Nenskra river on the other side of the mountain to increase the water flow and thus the amount of electricity generated. But given the history of mudslides, people in Nakra fear that if water is taken away from the Nakra river, it will loose the water necessary to wash away stones and sediments. If sediments accumulate, the river might flood the village.
“It is too risky to build a large dam in such a geologically sensitive area,” says a geologist living in Nakra. “Why build a large dam that mostly exports electricity abroad? Why not have a small hydro power station that would provide electricity to the villages in Svaneti?”
The government has ambitions to turn Georgia into a major supplier of energy to Europe and beyond. While over 70 projects wait for a perspective investor, agreements have been signed on more than 110. But given the track record of previous agreements signed by the government, it is unclear how the country will benefit from the dam boom. Some argue that an analysis that weighs the costs and benefits for Georgian society from hydropower should be completed for all planned projects.
Such an assesment would explain the rationale for the Nenskra project for Chuberi and Nakra, who regard the project as an exploitation of their natural resources. This summer, their thoughts are set on three things: a good harvest, enough water in wells and a ruling by the Ministries in Tbilisi about whether the project is right to be built.