Human Rights Watch is calling on Russian authorities to immediately ensure access to water and public transportation in a village in Sochi affected by the upcoming Winter Olympic Games. Olympic construction has left the mountain village of Akhshtyr without a reliable water supply for more than five years and has cut villagers off from public transportation and other services.
“The Russian government is building the most expensive Olympics in history, but many Sochi residents have paid a very high personal price for these games,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities cut Akhshtyr’s villagers off from basic services and have done woefully little to restore them.”
The Human Rights Watch video (above) shows Akhshtyr residents angered over the degradation of their village and calling on the authorities to solve the problems created since the start of Olympic construction in Sochi. The village of Akhshtyr is located in the Caucasus Mountains, between the Olympic venues on Sochi’s Black Sea coast and the alpine Olympic venues in the resort of Krasnaya Polyana. To link these venues, the Russian authorities built a 48-kilometer railway and road along the Mzymta River. Akhshtyr lies just a few kilometers from the new road. The authorities built no entry or exit ramps to the village although they had shared project designs with villagers indicating connections would be built.
The new road also cuts through a dirt road and path that villagers had relied on for decades to reach the main existing road running between Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. The pre-existing road was where children from Akhshtyr caught their school buses and where residents would board public buses and taxis to commute to work and elsewhere. Although the authorities installed a pedestrian crossing under the new railway, there is no safe pedestrian crossing across the new highway.
“The railway and highway between the Olympic venues is one of the Sochi Games’ most significant projects but will also serve as a key transportation link beyond the few weeks of the games,” Buchanan said. “It was incredibly shortsighted that the authorities didn’t take the basic steps of including a pedestrian crossing and an exit ramp to and from Akhshtyr, and further isolates villagers in an already remote area.”
Residents currently must drive their own cars or ask neighbors for transportation along a narrow mountain road to reach any other parts of Sochi. Some residents told Human Rights Watch that this route adds two hours or more to their daily commutes to school or work. In 2008 the authorities paved the dirt road running through the village to facilitate truck access to two quarries, and to a construction waste dump that they had built above the village and used for Olympic construction, and in the process destroyed residents’ main drinking water wells. In response to residents’ complaints, authorities have delivered drinking water to the village by truck about once per week, and sometimes less regularly.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the amount of water provided is not sufficient for their household needs, especially in the summer when they must water their gardens, which provide food both for household consumption and to be sold for income. In November 2010 Russian authorities installed a water pump on the edge of the village. According to residents, the pump worked only on the day when a number of local officials came to the village for a public event celebrating the pump’s installation. The authorities later stated in letters to Akhshtyr residents that the pump had been shut off because it did not meet “sanitary-protection norms,” firefighting requirements, and did not pass the state inspection. Residents told Human Rights Watch that for several years they have submitted multiple written complaints about the water supply and other concerns to various federal, regional, and local government agencies. The authorities have promised repeatedly to rectify the absence of a reliable water supply in the village. Sochi Mayor Anatolii Pakhomov said he would resolve the lack of water when he visited Akhshtyr and met with local residents in early December 2013.
“The residents of Akhshtyr have suffered for over five years without a reliable water supply, despite repeatedly asking the authorities for help,” Buchanan said. “The government should finally deliver on its commitments. Residents are understandably tired of the years of empty promises.”
Beginning in 2009 Human Rights Watch has repeatedly informed the International Olympic Committee about the water supply and other concerns in Akhshtyr in meetings, in letters, and during a joint visit to the village in September 2013. The IOC has shared this information with the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, which repeatedly sent assurances that the water supply problem had been resolved, or would soon be resolved – even when it had not. The IOC has told Human Rights Watch that it did not seek to independently verify the information provided by the authorities. Most residents of Akhshtyr are located directly along the narrow road leading to the Olympic quarries and waste dump above the village. Heavy dump trucks traveling to both sites and returning to Sochi have been driving almost continuously through the village, often 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for several years. The heavy truck traffic has created large amounts of dust, which residents complain has adversely affected their health, property, livestock, and agriculture. At times, layers of dust – up to five inches thick – cover the road and residents’ houses, yards, and gardens.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the dust forced them to abandon crops of fruit from their orchards that they normally would have sold at market as a key source of income. Local environmental activists and scientists, as well as state agencies, have criticized the quarries and waste dump, which continue to function. In October the Associated Press reported that a division of Russia’s Environmental Protection Agency had inspected the Akhshtyr landfill and found “unauthorized dumping of construction waste as well as soil from excavation works.” Human Rights Watch says it has documented the Russian authorities’ failure to fairly compensate or relocate people whose homes and livelihoods have been severely compromised by Olympic construction, including to make way for Olympic venues, or due to landslides triggered by Olympic construction.
“The Olympics cannot be a true celebration of human dignity and achievement when the preparations for the games have brought misery on residents,” Buchanan said. “Time is running out. With the start of the games just a few weeks away, the IOC needs to send a clear signal to the Russian authorities that they should urgently solve key problems in Akhshtyr, and other human rights concerns in Sochi, as a condition of hosting a successful games.”