Caucasus: Water wars divide disputed territory of South Ossetia

Text by Molly Corso

Tensions over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia flared in early June as both Georgian and Ossetian-controlled villages in the disputed region were left without water. Adding to the problem is the existence of two rival de facto governments in the territory, both linked by the same Soviet-era water grid.

The South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, where the separatist government headed by de facto President Eduard Kokoiti is based, has been without drinking water for the past two weeks.

A June 2 assessment made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that the cut-off was caused after holes were punched into the territory's pipe system for crop irrigation. This problem -- reportedly an annual occurrence as farmers prepare to plant their apple orchards -- was compounded by bad weather and the pipes' overall shoddy condition.

To solve the problem, the Georgian government in Tbilisi has stated that the Kokoiti government should work together with a so-called "administrative unit" in Georgian-controlled South Ossetia backed by Tbilisi and headed by Dmitri Sanakoyev, a former defense minister and prime minister under Kokoiti. But, so far, that has proven easier said than done. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In a June 5 telephone interview with EurasiaNet, Uruzmag Karkusov, who carries the title of prime minister under Sanakoyev, said that water supplies should be reestablished in both Ossetian and Georgian communities within "10 days."

"Our assignment is for Tskhinvali to have water without any preconditions," he said. A brigade working on repairs had detected between 70-80 problem areas in the water pipe system, he reported, adding that at least two portions are "unusable."

The Ossetian separatist government, however, says that their workers have not been allowed into Georgian-controlled territory to repair the damaged pipes. In a June 4 statement placed on their website, the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia's foreign ministry called cooperation with Sanakoyev "an absurd and absolutely inadmissible demand."

During a press conference in Tskhinvali the preceding day, Boris Chochiyev, the Tskhinvali government's de facto deputy prime minister, accused the Georgian authorities of punching holes into water lines that cross both Georgian and Ossetian-controlled villages as part of an alleged plan to use force to reclaim separatist-controlled South Ossetia for Georgia. "The Georgian government is preparing for war," the Russian news service Interfax reported Chochiyev as saying.

The Tskhinvali-based authorities responded to what they see as a provocation by temporarily cutting irrigation and drinking water supplies to Georgian-controlled villages in South Ossetia on June 3.

The foreign ministry of the Russian Federation, which supports Kokoiti's government, has also weighed in on the conflict, referring to rival leader Sanakoyev in a May 31 statement as a "henchman."

"Tbilisi has made hostages of residents of Tskhinvali and Georgian villages with its political games aimed at giving the Sanakoyev group some semblance of authority," the ministry said, as reported by Interfax.

The Sanakoyev administration's Karkusov, however, denied the accusations, stressing the group's desire "for everyone to work together" to decrease local worries that war is pending.

"We are doing all we can so Tskhinvali residents have water," he said. "Those are our people."

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.


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