Clayton Payne
Researcher on environmental governance in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. SOAS, University of London. UK. 

Independence for Abkhazia has been as far as a country could get from an easy transition, with a complete lack of recognition by U.N. member states pre-2008 to only a handful post-2008. As a country lacking international recognition, it has been excluded from environmental governance systems and access to wider initiatives. Consultation on projects influencing their natural resources has been denied to the nation on the basis that, in the international community’s eyes, they have no legitimacy to manage and preserve their own land’s ecosystems and natural resources and therefore require no consultation on projects affecting it. It would therefore be a legitimate and understandable position to take in believing that Abkhazia’s government and people, due to the economic constraints that have hampered them, resulting from their international exclusion, would have caused vast environmental damage as their natural resources were over-exploited out of economic necessity. In fact this was a position that was often voiced to me by many Georgian NGOs and academics about Abkhazia as I was conducting research. There is much environmental lore in Georgia pertaining to Abkhazia most of which Is easily disproven, some of which has reasonable though not totally satisfactory explanations, but all of which sounded logical against the political and economic backdrop.

Being cut-off from international systems has led to more than one negative consequence which I shall also look at openly and honestly, but which must be viewed within the context of international isolation and the lack of international cooperation and resources that result from this.

Preservation of Abkhazia’s forestry, endemic species and water

Two of the most vocalised objections I had heard whilst researching in Georgia pertaining to Abkhazian environmentalism were linked to Forestry – the first being stories of vast logging in the 1990s being sold to ‘black flag’ Turkish ships looking to exploit economically Abkhazia’s economic isolation and subsequent loss of tourism-revenue; the second being that, during the construction period of the Sochi Olympics, Abkhazia’s forests were again logged heavily, clearing swathes of intact forest to sell to Russia for lower prices than their domestic wood. From a logical standpoint, given the economic turmoil the country suffered from its isolation, these seemed like reasonable and understandable claims. However they were both easily debunked. Abkhazia’s tree-cover is not only important for its high level of carbon sink but sitting in a Marine subtropical humid temperature banding, high levels of deforestation would led to increased landslips and mud-flows as a result of soil-erosion and changes in rainfall-pattern which would destroy ecosystems and endanger existing settlements. This in turn would endanger endemic species populations, creating a habitat-loss that would be irreversible. However, in the last 20 years less than 0.2% of tree-cover in Abkhazia has been lost, a figure in line with loss of cover due to forest-fires and tree-disease. Satellite imaging showed after the construction-period of the Sochi Olympics that there had been a 3,000 hectare loss of forestry on the Russian side and none on the side of Abkhazia, disproving the belief that logging had occurred within Abkhazia. While any loss of forest-cover is less than ideal, the current loss of tree-cover in Abkhazia is still higher than would be optimal. International recognition would help greatly with this and offer the country access to cross-border cooperation on management of tree-disease and early-warning technology of forest-fire, which would mitigate these losses, reducing them to an even lower level.

Political isolation has not only rendered Abkhazia unable to control the usage of shared waterways, such as the vitally important Ingur river but has also left it excluded from transnational cooperation on the protection of its coastline. Abkhazia’s energy-security has been over reliant on the Ingur hydropower-plant since independence, which is now suffering from reduced water-flow. This could be exacerbated further by the proposed hydropower-plants in Georgia at Nenskra and Khudoni, which are being financed by the EBRD and other foreign investors. Were these plants to go ahead, not only would there be a further reduction in the water-flow of the Ingur river but there would also be loss of habitat for endemic species as well as further landslips and natural disasters. While these plants would affect Svan communities the most, the fallout from this would extend into Abkhazia, further increasing deforestation and loss of species-habitat, with Abkhazia being denied any consultation on this.

The Abkhazian Black Sea coast has also been excluded from schemes due to Abkhazia’s political isolation. Despite the wetlands and Black Sea coast being home to IUCN red-list birds which are close to extinction, transnational cooperation such as the Commission on the Protection of the Black Sea from pollution and the UNEP (United Nations’ Environment Programme) do not work on these projects with Abkhazia, thereby neglecting the coastline, a result of which has seen coastal erosion to the entrance to the Ingur river to the extent that ‘Hungry Coast’ (viz. where sediment is stripped from the river-bed allowing erosion of the coast) has become obvious. This damage has been allowed to happen only a short distance from the UNESCO-protected Kolkheti wetlands-site, preserved due to its important ecosystems and endemic species.

Abkhazia’s energy-security crisis

In Abkhazia today there is probably no bigger question than that of energy-security. In recent years there have been blackouts and ‘brownouts’ plus a wave of miners of Bitcoin taking advantage of Abkhazia’s low energy-costs. Abkhazia now has difficulty in effectively expelling the miners with as a consequence both a vast increase in energy-usage and impending energy price-rises on the horizon resulting from this shortage and global price-increases for energy.

Energy-prices were set low after independence to help counterbalance the economic plight of Abkhazia’s citizens. However, the ongoing international isolation of the country has never led to a natural increase of these prices. These low prices have resulted in years of neglect of internal infrastructure in the power-grid affecting power-lines, transformers and causing burnout of the electrical system. Alternative forms of electricity to the Ingur dam hydropower-plant have not received investment (due to the necessarily high costs involved), whilst Georgia’s reliance on the power from the dam has waned as it has received funds from EBRD and private companies to expand its power-network. The Ingur dam has needed increasing maintenance due to build up of silt, seepage and decreasing water-levels. Its location on a seismic area is also cause for long-term concern as natural disaster could in the future render it ineffective. This has led to a single point of failure for Abkhazia’s energy-security, low retail prices combined with a hydropower-plant that is ageing in an over-used river, no investment in infrastructure due to a lack of profits and no external investment in alternative long-term, affordable power-sources. While the low prices were honourable if not economically essential for people, this was in effect a policy with a short shelf-life that has now been operating for thirty years and has come to a head as the country faces excessive usage and global inflation in energy.

Other environmental issues

The other pressing environmental issue in independent Abkhazia is that of ecotourism and waste. Tourism has been, since Soviet times, a key economic industry in Abkhazia, but political isolation combined with increased high-quality tourism-infrastructure in Sochi has led to Abkhazia becoming a budget tourist-destination for more or less exclusively Russian tourists. Abkhazia’s current positioning in the tourism-market has stopped it fully exploiting higher-cost ecotourism, which could help it develop more environmentally sustainable tourism with higher profits. Abkhazia’s current isolation politically, combined with the difficulty faced by nationals of countries which do not recognise Abkhazia’s independence in obtaining a visa, means this is unlikely to change and the necessary investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. This, over time, will likely see a high-traffic, low-profit industry gradually degrade the infrastructure that is there without the needed income to build new sustainable infrastructure and projects for ecotourism that can work in equalibrium with the environment.

Waste-management has also been an acute problem in Abkhazia. Since the filling of the refuse-site in Sukhum, there has been no viable alternative, and waste has been dumped improperly in Gal as a result of there being no other viable option. While this is a deeply problematic issue, it is also an issue which could be solved relatively quickly with international cooperation or investment in infrastructure.

Conclusion and thoughts

In my opinion, despite the economic and geopolitical difficulties that Abkhazia has faced during its first thirty years of independence, environmentally Abkhazia has performed better than could have been realistically expected. It would be easy to point an accusing finger at the relative failures of the country on issues such as energy-security and waste-management, but these are problems that demand vast investment, and very few countries perform successfully without external investment and cooperation. Where Abkhazia has truly performed admirably is its preservation of its forestry, a key environmental feature of the country, when it might have been expected of a country suffering hardship to exploit what is an enormous economic resource.

Going forward, what is truly needed to secure areas where Abkhazia has been struggling most and to improve on some of Abkhazia’s good work is recognition by the international community. Even if this was only in a ‘soft’ form, where international cooperation and investment would (a) allow the necessary help that the country needs to protect its coast, (b) permit debate on shared resources, (c) create a thriving ecotourism-industry, (d) help with waste-management and (e) provide investment on alternative sources of low-cost energy.

Despite the good work done in Abkhazia, continued lack of recognition will only exacerbate environmental issues over the long term, and resolutions should be made to bring Abkhazia into the fold on International environmental issues, as the country is exceptionally important in the region for endemic species, carbon-sink by forestry and coastal integrity, all of which will undoubtedly be negatively affected long-term by continued isolation. Without Investment in the environmental infrastructure of the country, the problems faced will continue to spiral, just as they have with energy-security.

Environmental protection should not be a matter to be politicised, and, hopefully, there will be a change whereby International cooperation can help turn the tide on the most pressing issues and cross-border dialogue can begin. Shared resources should be the starting-point of any dialogue, since damage to them affects everyone in the region, not just Abkhazians.

References and sources available in the 2021 environmental report at: