Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Caspian Sea: An Uncertain Future

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Caspian Sea: An Uncertain Future

Article excerpt

The Caspian Sea, the largest inland body of water on Earth with a total surface area of 371,000 square kilometres and one of the world's smallest seas, geographically represents the intersection of Europe and Asia. This explains the uniqueness of its biodiversity and the strategical importance of its enormous oil and gas supplies, which have been the main points of concern for Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan-the countries surrounding the Sea.

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However, environmental issues have rarely been a high priority for the national governments, nor have they been a major concern for private companies operating in the region. Cooperation among States with respect to environmental issues is vitally important in order to prevent a dramatic decline of the Caspian Sea before it is too late, as has happened to the Aral Sea. (See UN Chronicle, Issue 1, 1999, page 38, "Dry Tears of the Aral".)

The area is home to 400 unique species, but the population of some of these species has been close to an unstable equilibrium, which means they will face extinction if the ecological situation does not change for the better. The reason for this threat is the agricultural run-off, saturated in chemical substances, that kills thousands of living species whose immune systems are sensitive to the changes in the water's composition. The situation has been worsened by the careless extraction of resources leading to the spills from the natural oil and gas drilling process. These by-products of commercial activity in the region have resulted in significant soil, land and water contamination. In addition, the construction of gigantic industrial refining complexes has led to the destruction of the coastal line, causing damage to many settlements surrounding the Caspian Sea.

The Volga and Ural rivers, which cross the territory of Russia and flow into the Caspian, have been the major source of untreated waste disposal into the Sea. Heavy industry has been responsible for contamination of these rivers, having disposed of sewage into the rivers for years. The financial difficulties many industrial complexes have been facing since the 1990s have made the installation of recycling devices impossible.

During the cold-war era, enormous natural resources in the Caspian basin had been the major source of economic prosperity for two surrounding countries: Iran and the Soviet Union. The region had become the world's oil production centre by the end of the twentieth century. Extraction of non-renewable natural gas and oil was so extensive that it was decided to extend drilling into the Caspian Sea. The overwhelming results of decades of over-exploitation of the Caspian resources and the neglectful attitudes towards potential environmental risks were first made known after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The consequences were the combined result of man-made activity and natural processes. Thus, the natural rise of the Caspian sea level, which has not yet been explained scientifically, creates additional concern for all surrounding countries. According to scientific data, the Sea has risen more than 2.2 metres since 1978, resulting in floods that have damaged a number of municipal structures and roads and destroyed human settlements. Climate change has also led to inevitable changes in the biological productivity of some species.

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The Caspian Sea accounts for 90 per cent of the world's caviar production. The black caviar has always been a synonym of prosperity and a high living standard for those involved in the business. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rapid decline in sturgeon stock due to overfishing and water pollution became evident, but preventive measures were not taken in time. As a result, their population has been significantly reduced. Historically, Iran and the former Soviet Union were major caviar exporters. …

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