Izolda Matchutadze, landscape ecologist, academic, and nature preservationist, is fighting for the conservation of the Georgian part of the Çoruh Basin. Matchutadze accompanied us on our trip from the point where the river Çoruh meets the sea on the Georgian side through the Turkish border. She helped us with the interviews we conducted in the villages as a translator. Matchutadze, whom we interviewed on a bridge over Çoruh, talked about the importance of the area, the effects of the dams built in Turkey on the region, and the consequences of climate change.
Could you please talk a bit about yourself?
My name is Izolda Matchutadze. I am a landscape ecologist. I work at Batum Shota Rustaveli State University and teach landscape ecology. Currently, we are working on nature conservation, ecotourism and endangered animal and plant species. We also run an NGO which focuses on wildlife, biodiversity, habitat, and species. It is called Chaobi Wildlife Conservation Association. I am working on habitat rehabilitation and climate change mitigation projects.
What is the importance of the river Çoruh for Georgia, Batum and the ecosystem in general?
Settlement in Batum was built on the sediment carried by this river. Biodiversity of the river Çoruh is very high; it is a wetland that needs to be conserved for the sake of the habitat and the species of animals and plants. Additionally, it is a special location for migratory birds and waterbirds as well as for ecotourism and birdwatching. This region has been taken under protection by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to the high-level anthropogenic impact and danger of extinction. We are also carrying out works for it to be recognized as a Ramsar site.
The problem with Çoruh today is that the river carries less and less sediment because of the dams. When there is heavy rainfall, the water from the dam runs very fast and results in floods.
Have you ever been to the Turkish part of the river Çoruh?
Yes, I have been there once.
What were your impressions? How did you feel?
I do not like structures of such a monumental size. When the Georgian government decided to build a dam here, I was also against the construction of such a big structure. If you want to help the locals, you can build small power plants. We are already facing climate change. Since 1994-1995 we are checking the climate data on a daily basis and the climate change is real. The winters are no longer as cold and snowy as they used to be. The amount of snowfall has decreased. We come across various diseases caused by the erratic weather conditions.
Do you think that there is a correlation between the climate change data that you have collected and the dams? Are they directly related to each other?
In terms of microclimate, yes. Also, there are more floods, landslides, and soil erosion.
Is vulnerability increasing?
Yes, particularly because of the geological features of this region. Due to the geological reasons, construction in this region had been previously banned. Building this massive structure here is an enormous mistake.
What is Georgia’s state policy on big dams? Because there are cross-border rivers and therefore cross-border water issues. Are there any problems with the Turkish government? What is the official policy of the Georgian government?
They have problems. But I do not know what these problems are. I think one of the main reasons is that the conservation of nature is not one of Georgia’s strong policies. I guess, it is not a strong policy anywhere. That said, we did not conduct an environmental impact evaluation for this.
Is there any legislation on environmental impact evaluation?
Yes, there are. However, the institution that conducts such evaluations is not a reliable one. It is an awful institution. We are all against it. One of my first MA students wrote a thesis about this issue and compared the ecology and economy of hydropower.
Does Georgia plan to build a dam over Çoruh?
They have already built one. We will see it shortly. It is not as big as the one on the Turkish side, but there is one.
You are an environmentalist and academic working here and Çoruh is one of the regions that you are trying to conserve. We are trying to do the same thing in Turkey. Do you have any suggestions for us? This way we might also help you, because as you know what we do in Turkey affects you here in Georgia.
The dams are already built. Once you ruin the ecology, responding to what is already done becomes even more difficult. Public awareness is important. Media plays a significant role here and it is necessary to increase environmental education. We are already facing a very serious issue: climate change. It causes many diseases, floods, and soil erosion; the ecosystem is being destroyed and this in turn affects the economic wellbeing of the locals.
You have mentioned climate change and many young people are protesting it. Do such protests also take place in Georgia?
Yes, people began to protest. People are taking to the streets everywhere. With the organization I am working in we have included many kindergartens into ecosystem rehabilitation; we are planting trees. We are including little children so that they can learn about these things. This is what we do. It is not solely about speaking of these issues, but also about getting together and being active in the field. This is a field that I want the children to be knowledgeable about. I am focusing on this and engaging in more field work.