Lake Sevan, nestled in the heart of Armenia, is the largest body of water in both the country and the broader Caucasus region, presenting itself as a vital geographical, economic, and cultural asset.
Lake Sevan, occupying a surface area of around 1,242 km^2 (480 sq mi), is situated in the Gegharkunik Province at an impressive altitude of 1,900 m (6,234 ft) above sea level. Its basin spans approximately 5,000 km^2 (1,900 sq mi), constituting about 1/6th of Armenia’s territory. The lake, predominantly replenished by 28 rivers and streams, loses 10% of its water to the Hrazdan River, with the remaining 90% evaporating. In terms of volume, it holds 32.8 km^3 (7.9 cu mi).
Ecological Aspects and Wildlife
Lake Sevan is a sanctuary for unique fish species such as Sevan trout (Salmo ischchan), Sevan beglu (Barbus goktschaicus), and Sevan khramul (Varicorhinus capoeta sevangi). Unfortunately, the Sevan trout, also known as ishkhan, is under threat, with two of its four subspecies already extinct and another on the verge of extinction as of 2019. This predicament has arisen due to human activities leading to a drop in the lake’s water level and a significant reduction in the spawning grounds for these fish. The introduction of species like the migrant whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus), silver crucian carp (Carassius gibelio), and narrow-toed crayfish (Astacus leptodactylus) further complicates the ecological balance.
Lake Sevan also plays host to a variety of bird species, most notably the Armenian gull (Larus armenicus), with its population reaching up to 4,000-5,000 pairs. The Sevan National Park, encompassing the lake, provides sanctuary to these birds, contributing to the lake’s rich biodiversity.
Economic and Cultural Importance
Lake Sevan contributes significantly to Armenia’s economy, providing 90% of the country’s fish and 80% of its crayfish. Furthermore, it holds immense recreational value, with its beaches being a popular destination for both locals and tourists. The presence of a medieval monastery on its sole major island (now a peninsula) adds to its cultural significance.
Historical Exploitation and Recovery
During the Soviet era, Lake Sevan was extensively utilized for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation, resulting in a dramatic decrease of about 20 m (66 ft) in water level and a reduction of over 40% in volume. Subsequent efforts to divert water from highland rivers have since stabilized the lake’s condition, allowing its levels to rise once again.
Etymology and Historical Names
The name “Sevan” is believed to be derived from the Urartian word “su(i)n(i)a,” translated as “lake.” Historical texts also referred to Lake Sevan as the “Sea of Gegham,” with other ancient and medieval names, including Lychnitis, Gelakuni, and variations like Sevanga or Sevang. During the 19th century, Turkic languages referred to it as Gokcha or Gökche, meaning “blue lake.”
Tourism and Recreation
Lake Sevan’s beaches stand out as the sole beach destination in Armenia, attracting tourists and locals alike. The government has actively worked to reduce commercialization at these beaches, ensuring affordability and accessibility for all citizens. The establishment of public beaches within the Sevan National Park’s recreational zone has further promoted sustainable tourism.
Lake Sevan plays a crucial role in Armenia’s economy, serving as the main source of irrigation water, a provider of low-cost electricity, and a hub for fishing, recreation, and tourism. The lake’s fish stocks were valued at 36 million drams in 2002, highlighting its economic significance.
In sum, Lake Sevan is a treasure trove of natural beauty, ecological diversity, and cultural heritage, holding a special place in the heart of Armenia and standing as a testament to the country’s rich geographical and cultural landscape.