In 1933 work started to deepen river bed of the river Hrazdan (the major river of Armenia starting at the northwest extremity of Lake Sevan) and construct a tunnel 40 metres below the original lake Sevan water level. The work was delayed due to World War II and was only finished in 1949. The water level then began to fall by more than one metre per year. As a result the water level fell drastically by more than 20 m from the Soviet era to the 1990s due to over-exploitation.
Lake Sevan water levels in m above sea level.
Water volume fell by 44 percent and the problem was compounded by pollution from sewage and industrial waste, turning some parts of the lake into swamp and causing species of fish and birds to disappear. An ecological disaster like in the Aral Sea was avoided when the Stalinist era ended in 1956 and the project and its consequences were reviewed thoroughly. The authorities began a programme to restore water levels 10 years ago and in 2008 imposed limits on irrigation usage and banned the use of the lake's water for hydropower production. Thanks to these provisions the lake's water level began to heighten by 25 to 35 centimetres per year and rose by three metres over the past 10 years. Still environmentalists warn that serious ecological problems remain and that water quality is still being affected.
As to the name of the lake, Sev means black in Armenian. Locals have told visitors that the name Sevan comes from many centuries ago during a cold winter when one of the frequent invasions by Arabs was imminent. The villagers warned one another and proceeded across the ice of Sevan to the (then) island on which Sevanavank was located. Once everyone was across they barracaded themselves in the church and prayed that their lives be spared. As the Arabs approached the ice they too crossed, but once they were well on their way across it, the ice gave and the invaders drown in the icy waters. The villagers viewed this as an act of God, sparing them from sure death. The lake was black with bodies of the dead soldiers so they named it Sevan.
The Armenian culture has a long and violent history behind it - assaulted by Assyrians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, and Turks. Known as Urartu it flourished about 3000 years ago as one of the oldest state formations in the world. The present republic of Armenia contains well-preserved buildings from the 4th and 5th century.