Magazine article New Internationalist

The North Caspian - What Am I Bid?

Magazine article New Internationalist

The North Caspian - What Am I Bid?

Article excerpt

When the first Soviet atom bomb was exploded in 1949 what the world heard was the starting gun for the arms race. It was.a less abstract sensation for Kazakhstan, where the test took place and where uranium exploration had begun the previous year. A new phase in the country's fateful relationship with its own mineral wealth was under way. In due course this vast territory would 'host' some 470 nuclear weapons tests. All such weapons were returned to Russia after independence in 1991 and the clean-up remains a contentious issue.

Aktau, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, was founded in 1963 as large uranium deposits were discovered nearby. Intended as a showcase city for the then-new technology, its power station and desalination plant were both nuclear-powered. The city's main eastwest axis still runs between a war memorial which looks quite a lot like a missile silo opening, and the 'statue' of a Russian jet fighter, frozen in mid-take-off.

The place feels less sure of itself these days. Uranium mining in this region ended in 1994 and the city's BN-350 fast reactor was shut down in 1997. The old botanical gardens have reverted to wilderness and the glamour has faded from the row upon row of identical south-facing apartment blocks.

But hardly had the weapons been returned to sender than the new country's fate became once again inseparable from its abundant 'raw commodities'. There are two major pipelines now under construction in Kazakhstan: one will connect the Caspian oilfields with China and the other will connect the massive new offshore field at Kashagan with a terminal at Aktau. Here, in full view of the city, the oil will be transferred to a specially built fleet of Russian freighters and shipped across the Caspian to Baku in Azerbaijan. From there it will flow along a recently opened pipeline over the Caucasus to southern Turkey, from which Western markets will be supplied.

For environmentalists the focus of concern has been and remains Kashagan. Discovered in 2000, it is the first full-scale project on the North Caspian shelf. The water which covers this shelf is only a few metres deep. Its salinity is also very low, with the Volga delta close by, so that it freezes over each winter. Thousands of seals haul out onto the ice to have their pups and these seals are themselves a relic of just one phase of the Caspian's long and strange history. During the last ice age it formed the southernmost part of a sea reaching northwards across what is now Russia. The Caspian still has its own breed of salmon as a result, as well as its own species of seal.

The Caspian's famous sturgeon meanwhile easily supplied the bulk of the world's caviare so long as fishing remained under some effective form of regulation. This has not been the case since 1991 and the result appears to have been an unprecedented collapse of fish numbers. Heavy metal contamination of the Volga has been rising consistently for 15 years - copper, zinc, lead, cadmium and mercury all exceed Kazakh government limits by a factor of five or more. Many sturgeon appear to have developed a form of muscular dystrophy. Liver abnormalities are now endemic.

To the east of the Caspian semi-arid deserts stretch away into Central Asia. The contrast between these two environments, onshore and offshore, could hardly be more stark, but the attraction for modern big business lies about five kilometres below both of them. The Kashagan oilfield will consist of about 100 wells operating from 17 artificial islands, situated between 40 and 70 kilometres frorrt the delta of the River Ural. It is thought to contain roughly 11 billion barrels.

Oil found at this depth is known as Old oil'. The 'younger' reserves exploited in Kazakhstan for more than a century do not bear comparison with the scale, or chemical composition, of what is now being extracted. Three of the world's largest drilling platforms are already employed by a local subsidiary of ChevronTexaco at the Tengiz onshore field, the fifthlargest oilfield in the world. …

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