New water sources relieve pressure on Georgia’s fragile steppe ecosystem

Posted: 31st July 2020

Photo credit: Giorgi Ianqoshvili

Despite its sheer cliff faces and rugged, dryland steppes, the dramatic landscape of the Iori River Valley and its surrounding ‘badlands’ masks a fragile ecosystem. This unique riverine and associated gallery forest habitat supports a range of life, including birds of prey (such as the imperial eagle), jackals, wolves, jungle cats, badgers and porcupines – not to mention range-restricted plant species such as Caucasian hackberries, floodplain oak and juniper. The gallery forest serves not only as a shelter for these species, but also a vital eco-corridor to connect them.

This region in southeast Georgia is also known for its arid, semi-desert landscapes, and provides winter pasture for thousands of sheep as part of a long-standing pastoral tradition. The dry conditions mean that water sources are scarce, so farmers must drive their large flocks over several kilometres every day to hydrate their sheep.

Unfortunately, swathes of sheep trampling and grazing their way through the Iori floodplain forest has disturbed this sensitive ecosystem and the plant life that depends on it. Unrestricted use has degraded the landscape, and the overgrazing has also allowed some species (such as the wormwood sp. Artemisia lerchiana) to dominate.

Addressing the need to rebalance the pressures on this important landscape and enable local pastoralists to use the land more sustainably, the Endangered Landscapes Programme is supporting BirdLife Europe and local Georgian partner organisation Sabuko to restore gallery forest and grasslands on 4,500 ha of land within southeast Georgia’s Chachuna Managed Reserve.

Ovegrazing on the Iori River Valley floodplains has allowed species such as Artermisia sp (wormwood) to dominate. Photo credit: Sabuko.

In a bid to preserve the unique biodiversity of the Iori River Valley’s floodplain forests and address the issue of water scarcity, local implementing partner Sabuko have offered farmers an alternative water source for sheep to drink by setting up eight watering ponds and a well in Chachuna Managed Reserve and across nearby territories. These new water sources have provided locally accessible water for thousands of sheep.

Natia Javakhishvili, Director of Sabuko, explained how this intervention not only improves conditions for the natural landscape, but for the sheep too.

“One farmer drove their flock over 4 kilometres for water. And they were not even facing the worst conditions because the river is relatively closer to them. Another farm could only get their sheep to a water source every three days. Other farmers had to fetch up to ten tonnes of water every 2-3 days, which was an expensive cost. The sheep suffer too – they walk long distances and lose weight, and they drink seldom. Therefore, we worked to find a solution.”

Local implementing project partner Sabuko are working closely with shepherds throughout the project to trial a novel rotational grazing scheme. Photo credit: Teimuraz Popiashvili.

Engaging the shepherds who live on the reserve is an important part of this project, and at the end of 2019 Sabuko carried out field suverys and extensive interviews with the shepherds. From these conversations, Sabuko were able to learn where the shepherds took the sheep for grazing and routes to the river – and also found that a common difficulty for farmers was access to water.

A consultant who was involved in these surveys and hired by Sabuko chose the appropriate area for digging and the well was excavated in three weeks. As a result, two new water points were created.

Aleksandre Mikeladze, Project Manager at Sabuko, said that one of the water points is close to several farms and provides water for up to 3000 sheep. The same number of sheep are watered by an installed well, from which the water is pumped through a generator.

“These waters are used not only by local farmers but also by those who have pastures on nearby territories. These water ponds give sheep direct access to water,” said Mikeladze.

As a result, the environmental impact on Iori floodplain forest decreased significantly, because farmers were able to provide their sheep with water from local water points and relieve pressure on the Iori River. Sabuko have also developed watering corridors which has led to marked decrease in the level of trampling in the gallery forest.  and risks of ramming have diminished. The team are pleased to see the positive effects on their intervention, as they work in partnership with the shepherds to develop a novel rotational grazing scheme.

Watch a video about the new well and watering ponds from Sabuko below:

To find out more about this project, please visit the Georgia project page.

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