by Gayane Abrahamyan
Hardly an hour's drive from Yerevan's metered service and expanding varieties of bottled water, the 750 residents of the Ararat province's Yeraskh village get their water every two days from a two-ton truck, filling canisters and jugs and pots and buckets 40 liters at a time for about 35 cents.
Yeraskh resident Albert Petrosian spends about $2 a week on water - that's $8 a month out of his $14 pension.
"When I have no money, I don't buy it," Petrosian says. "I can endure and drink no water. But I can't explain to my three- year-old grandchild how it happens that hardly have I got my pension before it is all gone. The child wants some water."
Whether summer or winter, the village seems covered with snow. The ground cover is in fact, salt. This alkaline is wearing out the soil and the effect is that, on two-thirds of the territory, nothing worth having grows there and houses made of stone decay at an accelerated rate.
In Soviet times a government program routinely treated the soil to neutralize its salinity, making the soil suitable for cultivation. Now, however, the land near the base of Mount Ararat, and in a province known for its fertile production, is like a desert.
And typical of other villages with different problems, it is being deserted of its residents, too.
"Yeraskh has become a poor nursing home for the aged, while it used to be one of the richest villages," says village head Seryozha Avetisian. He adds that 50 percent of its young men have left over the past few years.
According to the social monitoring department of the province, 80 percent of the population is unemployed and the remaining 20 percent have only seasonal jobs.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Haycoop (cooperative trade organization) operated in Yeraskh, and a water plant employed 600. Today, only rusty signboards remain.
Unemployment, no water, poor conditions, are a common complaint in Armenian villages. Malaria is not.
But in Yeraskh, where the village is surrounded by swamp all the families are familiar with the disease.
The village doesn't have a doctor nor a clinic and the nearest hospital is 25 kilometers away in Vedi. Doctors from Vedi have promised to visit the village to vaccinate. The villagers are still waiting.
Avetisian says there is some economic progress in the Ararat province, but that her village "seems to be off the map".
While the contrary might be assumed, the village head says her village suffers "because Ararat is considered a province close to Yerevan", and as a result doesn't get as much government and international aid attention as distant locations.
Tigran Virabian, head of the agricultural and environmental department of Ararat province administration, says that 70 percent of the problems in his province are solved. That 70 percent, however, would not include the 10 villages where 70 to 90 percent of the residents are indigent and about 25 percent are lucky enough to be categorized only as "poor".
Water woes in the beer province
Yerevan's neighbor to the north, Kotayk province, may have more in common with the capital than with the typical Armenian province. It is host to 190 enterprises including Kotayk Beer and massive poultry farms in Lusakert and Arzni.
It is home, too, to perhaps Armenia's most popular tourist attractions, Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple as well as the year-round resort of Tsaghkadzor.
Still, unemployment in the two major towns (Charentsavan and Hrazdan) reaches 45 percent. Industrial complexes that once employed 50,000, now operate at 10 to 15 percent capacity.
And, typically, conditions worsen outside city limits.
Saralanj village, located at 1,800 meters above sea level is the poorest community of the province, with a poverty rate of 99 percent.
Gegham Zilifian, head of the community, says that the main problem of the village is irrigation water and lack of agricultural machines.
"We used to have rich gardens but the irrigation system broke, and all of our gardens dried up," says Zilifian.
Lena Mkhitarian, from Fantan village says they sow wheat and look up in the sky like prehistoric man begging the gods for rain.
"Fantan was the only place famine never terrorized people during both world wars," says village head Valeri Ivanian. "Everybody had cars in this village. Nobody lived bad. Today, we long just for fruit."
People mostly sow grain here, which is less reliant on water, then trade it for fruits and vegetables.
"We have to give 10 kilograms of wheat to get a kilogram of grapes, while we could grow anything on our own soil but we have no water," complains 73-year-old Hasmik Harutiunian.
Eeking out a living.
Also bordering Yerevan, Armavir province is home of the town of Etchmiadzin, the Holy See and the nuclear power plant in Metsamor.
According to Parandzem Karapetian, head of the province administration personnel, only a few communities have benefited from their proximity to Yerevan. About one to two percent of the population has found jobs in the capital. And, in fact, Karapetian says more Yerevantsis benefit, finding jobs in the Armavir province in areas such as administration.
"A significant part of the public service sphere is occupied by Yerevan residents," she says.
The personnel administrator agrees with the Yeraskh village head that the nearer provinces are more likely to be overlooked in the compassionate gaze outward from the capital of the republic.
In Noravan, for example, 340 children must travel three-to-five kilometers (many on foot) to attend the nearest school.
"My grandchild is a first-grader and gets tired," says 68-year-old Avetik Grigorian. "We have a hard time sending her to school. A finger-sized kid walking four kilometers to reach the school dogtired. Could her brain possibly comprehend anything?"
Unlike Noravan, the village of Lernagog has its own school. There, however, some children stay at home, ashamed of their clothes.
Only two of Sanam Petrosian's four school-aged children (from a total of seven) are attending classes this year.
"The village administration helped us buy at least shoes and a schoolbag," says Sanam, wiping her seven-month-old daughter's mouth with the edge of her skirt. "God grant that the other two also go to school next year."
Sanam's family full of children dreams to be in Yerevan and take a bath.
"We barely manage to gather drinking water," says Sanam, age 34. "I have to spend 500 drams ($1 a day) only on food for the seven children. If there's no water we eat only bread. It has happened that, longing for water, my seven-month-old daughter never winked an eye a whole night long. Whose door shall I knock on so late at night, to ask for a glass of water; everybody buys it."
About 60 kilometers from Yerevan, Lernagog used to be a village occupied by the largest flour mill in the South Caucasus and the second largest industrial farm in the Soviet Union.
Times have changed. So has Lernagog, going from a population of 4,000 to 1,500.
"Only those who are unable to leave have remained in the village," says village administration personnel head, Argam Makarian "It's a kind of colony without barbed wire."
From a distance, parts of Lernagog look bombed, the effect of families having torn down houses to sell the materials.
"You can't sell a house in our village. No one will buy a house for more than $200," says Makarian. "That's why they demolish the house and sell the stones. Lernagog is like Fila Bazaar in Yerevan (a part of a street where people assemble hoping to be hired for construction). We are a cheap labor force for the neighboring villages. There's nothing they could do. They go and work by the sweat of their brow and sometimes come back cheated, without money."
By the sweat of his brow, 64-year-old Armenak Mikayelian chops wood with hands calloused by the work.
"If a child is born a year or a couple marries we feel that life progresses," the villager says. "Otherwise, today we remember only the past, afraid of thinking of the present and the future."