International Banks threaten the High Caucasus

The European Wilderness Society is in touch with numerous Wilderness advocates all over the world and has already dedicated a lot of posts to the huge Svydovets ski resort building in Ukraine. This time the European Wilderness Society would like to share with you the developments from Georgia. Currently, a huge road construction threatens natural and cultural heritage of the Khada Valley and beyond. The National Trust of Georgia stands for protection of the Valley, and its co-chair, Peter Nasmyth, shared with us his concerns and perspectives.

Please also read: Svydovets report published

Khada Valley and its value

The Greater Caucasus mountains are the highest, most unspoilt and historical in Europe. One of their most culturally essential sites is the Khada Valley, serving for two thousands of years as a main entry/exit-point between Europe and Asia. Its 9 kilometres have been witness to Greek, Roman, Mongol, Persian, Russian armies and many of its distinctive 60+ medieval towers still stand. It is also a home for the rare Bearded, Black and Griffon vultures and a particularly rich biodiversity. The valley, which rises from 1300 to nearly 4000 metres, is rich in mineral water springs. Moreover it still houses a few of Georgia’s declining wild bear populations.

Construction plans

A recent $475 million loan from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) for a new road and 8.5 km tunnel, now threatens to transform this unique site of world heritage permanently. The five bridges and six tunnels also set a worrying precedent for the rest of Georgia’s unmolested alpine zones. Khada is one of Georgia’s many high mountain valleys. Several are now threatened by large construction projects, including dams.  Locals are increasingly voicing their opinions against.

Threats of the construction

Academics, internationals and businesses strongly question the Bank’s due diligence on this project. Recently a Georgian government report found 175 historic sites in the Khada valley, against the 29 recorded in the Bank’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which justified the loan.

This project is pivotal because it sends a signal that other mountainous areas are ripe for development into ski resorts. Unfortunately it might be the inevitable fate of Khada. Moreover, there are many safety concerns for this huge construction through a once active volcanic dome. Nine years ago the same two banks funded another tunneling project in Georgia, the Shuakhevi valley dam and power station in Ajara. Completed in 2016, the tunnel promptly collapsed and was still broken 4 years later.

Contravening the European Landscape Convention

Georgia is the 7th in the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business rankings. The fear is that poorer governments are being encouraged to accept large loans based on a Bank’s own cursory research. Also in this case, it contravenes the Council of European Landscape Convention, signed by Georgia in 2010. The Convention sets out to protect exactly these kind of natural treasures. Such treasures are still so close to, and much needed by, the larger population centres.

A sustainable alternative

The Khada Valley lies right next to, yet is separate from, Georgia’s main ski-resort, Gudauri. From May to December, snowless and significantly developed Gudauri, becomes redundant and virtually economically lifeless. Few of the many hotels remain open and the local industry has to lie dormant until the first good winter snows in December.

By developing Khada’s trekking and eco-tourism opportunities for the summer hikers, Gudauri would gain a whole new economic lease of life – as happens in equivalent Swiss and Austrian ski resorts. This is the golden opportunity awaiting both the Khada Valley and Gudauri.

More information can be found on the website of the National Trust of Georgia. The National Trust of Georgia is a part of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO). And INTO is a sub-division of the National Trust of the UK. The European Wilderness Society supports the efforts to save Khada Valley in Georgia and will keep you updated on further developments.

Iryna Shchoka

Iryna Shchoka is a regional development expert and is based in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

Iryna Shchoka has 128 posts and counting. See all posts by Iryna Shchoka

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