Concerns Raised over Eastern Caucasus Motorway Plans

Considering the high public interest, the CENN team studied the geo-environmental, social, and economic implications concerning the planned Construction of Roadways in the Eastern Caucasus mountains and is presenting its analysis and observations regarding the topic.

The eastern part of the Georgian Caucasus is crossed at three locations by an approximately 100 kilometer-long section along the main dividing range (from Jvari Pass to Abano Pass) by motorways connecting the rest of Georgia with the mountainous northern parts of the Caucasus Range (Khevi, Northern Khevsureti, and Tusheti). Located 2,400 meters above sea level, Jvari Pass operates almost year-round, with the exception of several closures during winter when avalanches are most common. Datvijvari (2,676 m above sea level) and Abano (2,950 m above sea level) are closed from the end of October until the end of May approximately. As a result, residents living permanently in Shatili and Tusheti are isolated from the outside world, with the exception of a monthly helicopter flight to Tusheti initiated by the Prime Minister last winter.

The parts of Georgia mentioned above are situated on the northern slopes of the Caucasus and attract many local and international visitors on an annual basis due to their unrivalled beauty, unique environment, and cultural heritage. These reasons significantly influenced the establishment of several Protected Areas in the region. These parts of the country and their protected areas are primarily connected to each other by internal trails built in previous centuries, some of which are now labelled and used by tourists and local residents.

The Government of Georgia has decided to restore the existing roads in the above-mentioned areas and to build roads to replace some of the walking trails. Specifically, the construction of new roads in the direction of Sno-Juta-Roshka-Shatili-Omalo-Pshaveli and from Pankisi to Tusheti via the Batsara-Khadori Pass (15 km in length). Khadori Pass is located approximately 2,600 m above sea level and, since it is 350 m lower than Abano Pass, the Georgian government believes the road built on it will function during wintertime. As a result, residents spending the winter in Tusheti will no longer be isolated from the outside world.

Although the government deserves credit for maintaining the well-being of its population and further developing tourism, the question still stands as to whether or not such a massive construction project in a naturally beautiful environment is rational. Also, it is important to consider if the construction project will result in a significant anthropogenic change as well as restrict the habitats of natural ecosystems in the area. It should be noted that sections of the projected road will pass through vital ecological areas, especially in the Amugo and Tebulo mountains in Andaki, Tusheti, and Alazani along Borbalo-Atsunta, among the mountainous regions where rare, red-listed Capra Caucasica and Capra Aegagrus live. Capra Aegagrus, widely populated the East Caucasus in past centuries, has horns almost a meter in length. Such horns are still kept in family homes and on old shrines, but now the number of Capra Aegagrus is critically low.

The government will struggle to build new roads according to modern standards in Georgia’s mountainous regions and will struggle to prevent erosion, landslides, and the degradation of slopes. The Datvijvari Pass, about 2,676 meters above sea level, is closed for almost seven months of the year. It seems improbable that the Georgian government will be able to build fully-functioning roads passing through narrow valleys and some areas 3,000 meters above sea level (i.e., the Juta-Roshka, Andaki, and Sakorne passes near Borbalo). Roads built on high gradient slopes will be in need of weekly or monthly clearance of rocks and other debris falling from the slopes, even during the summer.

The Georgian government has failed to meet modern standards of road construction and restoration in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region in recent years, particularly:

1. Reconstructing the Zhinvali-Tianeti road where a slope was cut and widened on the section of the road passing through the forest. Debris (i.e., boulders, stones, and rubble) primarily fell on the lower part of the road, where large boulders inflicted massive damage to the forest along the road, peeling bark off trees and partially crushing them. Interrupted migration of wild animals due to the vertically cut slopes is another aspect worth mentioning.

2. Constructing the Kvenamta road for the purpose of high-voltage tower construction in Gudamakari and Bursachiri. If there were proper communication between state agencies, the above road could be transformed into an extremely active tourist area. However, failure to meet road construction standards added to the already degraded Bursachiri slope and created new sources of erosion. Crumbling slopes and mudslides during the rainy season poses a risk to residents living close to the lower part of the river and increases the number of eco-migrant families.

There are many cases of imposing heavy fines due to environmental damage on road construction companies, but almost none of the fines are enforced. This fosters the impunity syndrome among construction companies and encourages them to reduce costs by causing environmental damage. Past experience demonstrates that the government and construction companies ignore consequential erosional and gravitational processes and do not implement any significant prevention or mitigation activities. Roads constructed in the above-mentioned areas using such standards will almost certainly result in erosion and the degradation of slopes which, in the long-run, will significantly change and disfigure the landscape. The above-mentioned road will not improve the social and economic conditions of the local population. Moreover, disasters occurring on the road will most likely result in negative publicity for these parts of Georgia.

Taking into account all of the above, the government must effectively address the aforementioned issues. The solution to these issues requires objective judgement and substantial research. The government must consider the experience of developed countries as well as the opinions of local residents, tourists, and visitors. The government must make an important decision: rather than paying for new roads, perhaps it would be best to restore the already existing roads (i.e., Sno – Juta, Barisakho – Shatili – Mutso – Ardoti, Pshaveli – Omalo, roads in the Ukana Pshavi – Shuapkho – Vakis villages, as well as internal roads in Tusheti like the road from Omalo to the village of Girevi in the Northern Alazani Valley as well as the road in the Gometsari Valley to Tsovati). These roads are desperately in need of repair and maintenance. For example, the existing trails going in the direction of Borbalo, which are also in need of repair, need signposting. It would also be beneficial for the government to utilize a rescue helicopter to help locals and tourists when necessary. As a result, this will encourage even more tourists and visitors to visit the newly established Pshav-Khevsureti National Park and the roads and trails leading to Pankisi.

Rivers flowing in all directions originate from Borbalo Mountain (i.e., Aragvi of Pshavi, Alazani of Kakheti, Alazani of Tusheti, Andaki, and Lori). Trails once lead from the valleys of these rivers to Borbalo and, in essence, were considered a crossroads in mountainous East Georgia. These trails should be brought back to life and restored, with tourist shelters established close to the passes near the mountain (i.e., Sakorne and Andaki). If these actions are enforced, the trails will be brought back to working order and thus locals and tourists will positively benefit from these trails.

If we analyse the above in an unbiased manner and weigh all of the pros and cons, less damage will be inflicted on the environment. As a result, more tourists and visitors will spend money on visiting this beautifully mountainous part of East Georgia, and it will serve to keep local residents satisfied.

08 March 2018 15:50