International Committee to Save

the Archeological Sites of Pasargad












Caspian Sea

    In mid-1998, the five countries that border the Caspian met for the first time to discuss the need to balance natural resource exploitation with the biological sustainability of the region, whose environment is currently considered to be in critical condition.   However, as Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan continue to struggle over the classification of the Caspian as a sea versus a lake, the absence of distinct national spheres of responsibility for particular areas creates a commons dilemma.

    In the past, the United States has suggested that the littoral states of the Caspian meet to simultaneously consider both the legal status of the Caspian and possible strategies for its preservation and development.  Until a determination is made about how the Caspian will be divided, the current arrangements will likely continue to hinder and even discourage significant advances in responsible environmental management.  For now, however, Russian industrial waste continues to pour in via the Volga, raw Iranian sewage washes out to sea, and Azerbaijani oil rigs leak directly into the Caspian.

Legal Issues

   Legal issues regarding the Caspian Sea reflect Caspian politics.  They are also a "wild card" that each country uses to enhance its position.  They arise because the Caspian is not technically a "sea" as defined by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but rather "a special inner sea".  Up until the end of the Soviet Union, the sea was joint Soviet-Iranian property by the Protocol of 1940.   With the breakup of the Soviet Union, conflict between the littoral states--Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Russia --  for ownership of the Caspian began.

     Both Russia and Iran want to see the five states share the resources since their immediate offshore waters do not contain significant reserves. At first, Russia took a hard line, opposing any division of the Caspian among the five states.  Since then, Russia has proposed a condominium approach whereby the seabed would be divided into five sections, but the water above shared.  This means that to start an oil project, all five littoral states would still have to vote on it beforehand.  Motivated by a feeling that oil and gas development will go on regardless of legal issues and a desire to share in Kazakhstan's success, Russia came to an agreement with Kazakhstan on demarcation lines in August 1998.   Iran, on the other hand, is still arguing for a shared seabed—either that or a redrawing of demarcation lines that would give Iran a substantial increase in offshore reserves.  Turkmenistan is reluctant to agree to divide the seabed because of three reasons: a dispute with Azerbaijan over an offshore oil field, close ties to Iran, and a lack of its own offshore reserves.

    Azerbaijan, on the other hand, wants to see the agreement go further and divide the "water-column".   Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, since the beginning, have not been  supportive of the Azeri stance, jealous of Azerbaijan's far greater offshore oil reserves.  In the future, however, Kazakhstan will want  freedom to explore its own oil reserves.

    Legal issues concerning the Caspian Sea really come down to economics and politics.  The issue surfaces whenever there is something to be gained or lost.  Today, Russia and Iran use the legal issue to oppose "Trans-Caspian" pipelines.

The Mysterious Rise and Fall of the Caspian Sea

    From its source in European Russia to where it enters the sea in a one hundred mile-wide web of delta channels, the Volga River supplies eighty percent of the water volume of the Caspian Sea.  Once it enters the sea, the only outlet for this water is evaporation.  Even in prehistoric times, the size of the Caspian varied widely.  During its largest stage, the Caspian probably connected to both the Baltic and the Black Seas, yet when the Caspian was at its smallest, the Volga ran all the way to Baku (now situated midway down the coast) before draining into the sea.

    The Caspian reached its lowest point in modern times in the early 1970s after falling twelve feet beginning in the 1920s.  In 1977, the water level suddenly began a rise that today puts it back near 1930s levels, having regained almost ten feet.  However, even the return of the waters to the Caspian has not been enough to help scientists to pinpoint the cause of their fluctuations in the first place. One factor that contributes significantly, though certainly not exclusively, to the increasing water level is the existing pollution in the Caspian.  Leaks from oil fields have created thin films of oil that cover parts of the sea in some areas, thus reducing evaporative water loss.

    Former Soviet republics that once considered diverting rivers from Siberia into the Caspian region in order to stop the fall of the Caspian water level now struggle to deal with water that stretches twelve miles inland in places that were dry in recent memory.   Forty thousand square kilometers of coastal zone has been flooded altogether.  The greatest threat to local residents, tourists, offshore workers, and fisheries could come from the flooding of radioactive soils that remain from the time in which Soviet nuclear weapons were tested underground and nuclear explosives were used to carve out the land.

    A one meter rise is the  estimate that many in Baku give for what it would take to flood oil wells, pipelines, and refineries along their coast.   Unfortunately, continued flooding appears imminent.  Scientists currently forecast that the Caspian Sea will continue to rise another one to one and a half meters until 2020 and will then stabilize over the following forty to fifty years at twenty-six meters below sea level. The threat is made more dire by the desire of many port cities such as Aktau in Kazakhstan to build breakwaters to hold back the rising sea as part of modernization plans in anticipation of increased tanker traffic. Pushing back the seas in populous, industrial areas will only force more water onshore in those that are less populated and less prosperous, such as those contaminated by nuclear wastes.

The Caspian's Other "Black Gold"

    The diversification of national interests towards the development of oil and gas directly threatens another form of Caspian "black gold," the caviar market.  Caviar, the unfertilized eggs of the female sturgeon, sells for up to fifty dollars an ounce on the world markets.   Long considered the most prestigious source in the world, the Caspian Sea today provides more than ninety percent of the world's caviar. However, the size of its sturgeon population has fluctuated wildly over the past fifty years, a situation that increasing industrial development in the Caspian will likely amplify.

    In 1959, the damming of the Volga River cut the sturgeon off from its breeding grounds, dramatically reducing the number of new young.   Four years later, the Soviet leadership met "to decide whether to give priority to oil extraction or to the development of its sturgeon stocks."  The final decision favored the sturgeon, and the Soviet Union subsequently built twelve sturgeon hatcheries around the Caspian.  As a result, sturgeon catch successfully rose from 10,000 tons in 1963 to 27,000 tons in 1982.  However, continued pollution and the fall in the water level throughout the 1960s and 1970s brought 1996 catches down to a mere 2500 tons.

    Even without the new challenge of increased oil and gas development, it is unlikely that the current sturgeon crisis could be rectified easily. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S.S.R. and Iran, as exclusive custodians of the Caspian, coordinated to strictly control sturgeon fishing.   However, the challenge of coordinating the efforts of five littoral states has proven much more difficult, despite a February 1992 letter of intent by all five littoral states to combine their efforts to prevent the exploitation of marine resources.

    In November 1997, five species of sturgeon were added to lists protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Demands on the sturgeon population will only increase as the other natural resources of the Caspian are developed.  For example, large shoals of sturgeon spend the winter in shallow, warmer waters over three major Azerbaijan oilfields: the Azeri, the Chirag, and the Guneshli.  Such oil wastes from fields off Azerbaijan block oxygen exchange between the water and the air, causing the sturgeon to suffocate.   Similar sturgeon shoals congregate in shallow warm water off the coast of Kazakhstan in an area where drilling on the Caspian Shelf is scheduled to begin soon.