CASPIAN SEA

CASPIAN SEA

The Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland body of water. Bordering Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, it is 760 miles (1,200 kilometers) long, 130 (200 kilometers) to 300 (480 kilometers) miles wide and has a surface area of 143,550 square miles (370,000 square kilometers) and is 92 feet (28 meters) below sea level. It is about the same size as California or five times the size of Lake Superior, and 1½ time the size of all the Great Lakes combined in terms of surface area but hold less water than Lake Baikal in Siberia. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

Named after an ancient tribe called the Caspii and really a lake not a sea, the Caspian Sea has no outlets but loses a lot of water to evaporation. Its water is salty. The Volga River flows into the northern Caspian Sea and is the source of 80 percent of its water. The level of the Caspian Sea rises and falls with the flow of the Volga River, with the level at its highest in the spring after the river swells from the spring melt.

The Caspian Sea has no access to the world’s seas. The northern part of the Caspian Sea is very shallow. The average depth is 20 feet (6 meter). Around the Volga Delta the depth is only around seven feet (two meters). The water in the north is less salty than other parts of the sea and is bluer in color. The Caspian Sea is much deeper in the southern and central sections. There are two deep basins, separated by an underwater ridge. The deepest point 3,190 feet (975 meters).

On the eastern shore is a unique gulf called the Garabogaz Bay (Kara-Bogaz-Gol). Covering 7,000 square miles (18,00 square kilometers), an area almost as big as Lake Ontario, it is almost completely cut of from the rest of the Caspian Sea by sand spits. Water evaporates very quickly here because of the exceptionally arid climate. The water level in the gulf is lower than the rest of the sea and water rushes through narrows that separate the gulf from the sea. Along the southern seabed are a number of “mud volcanoes,” some of them several hundred feet high. They spew out clay and are capable of quick, unpredictable growth. They are associated with oil deposits but also present a challenge for pipeline planners.

The Caspian Sea Basin lies as low as 132 meters below sea level. The forested slopes of the Caucasus mountains and Iran's Eburz mountains abut against the southwestern and southern shore. To the east are the Balhhan Ramges and the Kara-Kum desert. To the north is the Ust-Urt plateau and beyond that are the rolling Volga uplands.

Ecology of the Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea basin is uniquely landlocked. Because there are no outlets, dissolved salts collect in the Caspian Sea with concentrations that vary greatly from nearly fresh water in the north, to brackish in the south. About 88 percent of the water comes from three rivers: the Volga, Kura and the Terek. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

Many rivers empty into the Caspian Sea and all form deltas. The Ural River and Volga River deposit large amounts of sediment and fresh water, which is why the water is shallower and less salty in the north. The south is further away from fresh water sources and has a salt content about a third that of seawater. The largest concentrations of salts are the eastern part of the sea in Garabogaz Bay, where the evaporation rate is high, the water is shallow, the salt content is 10 times higher than saltwater and there are accumulations of salt that are six feet (two meters) deep.

The water temperatures vary from place to place and season to season. In the shallow north the temperatures are fairly uniform in relationship to depth but vary quite a bit depending on the time of the years: 75 degrees F (24 degrees C) in the summer to as low 30 degrees F (-1 degree C) in the winter. The deeper water in the south varies according to the season and depth. At the surface the water 81 degrees F (27 degrees C) in the summer and reaches a low of 48 degrees F (9 degrees C) in the winter but is a constant 41 degrees F (5 degrees C) at a depth of 1,300 feet (400 meters).

The climate and landscape around the Caspian Sea varies greatly. On the northern side the weather is cold in the winter and the vegetation is sparse and mostly grass, particularly on the east of the shore. In the south the climate is tropical and large amounts of sugarcane is grown. There are great swaths of undeveloped coastline, particularly on the eastern shore in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, where the water is clear and blue and camels can be spotted in the seaside dunes. Pollution is a problem around the oil fields of Baku and in the southern reaches of the lake.

Currently there is mad scramble over resources, transportation routes and fishing rights in the Caspian Sea. All the main routes between the oil producing areas and the Western industrialized areas runs through the Caucasus, a region known for its instability and insurgencies. One oil spill could kill lots of sturgeon and deal a serious blow to the caviar industry.

There are 415 species of fish in the Caspian Sea. Twenty three species of fish are listed as endangered, including caviar-producing sturgeon. Differences in salt content and temperature have a lot to do with determining what life forms are found in a specific area. In the deep waters there are large amounts of hydrogen sulfide and little oxygen, which prevents life from developing. The Caspian seal is a close relative of the Baikal seal. They migrate between the sea’s northern ice in the winter to the deep cool water of the south in the summer. Caspian Sea lampeys were traditionally carried by camel caravan from Azerbaijan. Lamprey fat was used as fuel for oil lamps.

History of the Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea is located in a basin that may be as old as 250 million years and was connected to the Mediterranean until about 12 million years ago. Between four and five million years ago, the Caspian Sea was about a third of its present size. Around three million years the Black Sea, Aral Sea and Caspian Sea were a true sea connected to the Mediterranean Sea and the world oceans by the Sea of Azov. During the ice age between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago the Caspian Sea was about two thirds the size it is now. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

In ancient times the Caspian Sea was large than it is now. The ruins of ancient ports and villages have been found as far away as 20 miles (50 kilometers) away from the present shore. In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great reached the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Ancient mapmakers thought it was part of a sea that stretched all the to the North Pole. The northern limits weren't recognized the A.D. 2nd century. Tsarist Russia secured control of the Caspian Sea during its expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. The area was largely undeveloped until oil was discovered around Baku in the late 19th century. By 1900, the Caspian Sea area produced half of the world’s oil.

Convinced that more water could help the Caspian Sea rebound, Soviet engineers in the early 1970s considered using nuclear explosions to open a new canal between the Pechora River and Kama River (a tributary of the Volga). Three 15-kiloton nuclear devices were detonated as part of an experiment and the radiation levels were figured to be within allowable limited. Even though the Soviet Union possessed the weapons to do the job (250 devices between 100 and 200 kilotons) the programs was eventually dropped because it was worried that it would divert to much warm water away from the Arctic Ocean and affect navigation there.

Seepage, evaporation, dams, irrigation systems, industrial uses, and rain, climate and river flow variations that are not completely understood, has caused the Caspian Sea to rise and fall as much as a foot a year. Between 1930 and 1978 the sea level dropped more than eight feet and then suddenly began rising, and recovered the eight feet it lost between 1978 and 2000 due primarily to increased rain and inflows from rivers. The rise flooded some towns on the shores. It also caused silt barriers to form at the mouth of rivers, particularly the Kura, and these barriers have to be dredged to keep rive water flowing. Flooding had claimed almost 50,000 acres in Iran, made thousands of people homeless and washed oil into the sea. Factories and towns have been flooded Fishing villages had that found themselves miles from water were flooded. In recent years, the sea has leveled off.

History of Oil in Caspian Sea

Oil was noted more than 700 years ago by Marco Polo who wrote of “a fountain from which oil springs is in great abundance." Most of the oil and natural gas was produced from organic matter that has flowed in by regional rivers and been compressed.

The world’s oil industry developed in Caspian Sea around Baku in the 1870s. Large reserves of oil had been discovered in the mid 19th century. Not much was made of the discoveries under czarist Russian rule. The area boomed when t was opened up to foreign investors. Fortune seekers from all over the world came to Azerbaijan in 1872 when the Russian czars opened up the Baku fields to foreign investment. Among them were Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize, and his brothers, and the Rotchchilds.

Some local people got lucky. There are stories of men with nothing more than a shovel finding oil Beverly-Hillbilly-style in their cotton fields. Gushers were given names like “Wet Nurse” and the “Devil’s Bazaar.” Workers toiled in waist-deep muck trying build channel to direct oil into lakes before it dissipated.

Baku experienced rapid development in the last quarter of the 19th century and early 20th century because of the development of Baku’s oil wealth. Thousands of Russians, Caucasus people, Armenians, and southern Azerbaijanis poured into northern Azerbaijan to cash in on the “oil rush” there.

In the early 1990s, when oil prices were relatively high and there was trouble in the Persian Gulf, Western companies rushed into the Caspian Sea area and leapt over themselves, trying to win concessions for the right to drill for oil and gas.

Oil in Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea basin was expected to be one of the world’s most important sources of oil by the year 2015 but although it is an important energy source it hasn’t turned out to be the gusher that it was touted to be. The United States, Europe and Asia have a keen interest in the area as a source of energy if supplies from the Middle east are disrupted. So far the biggest beneficiary has been China, which has secured much of the oil produced in Kazakhstan.

About 1.1 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas comes from the Caspian Sea. Oil deposits on the Caspian Sea are the third largest after deposits in the Persian Gulf and Siberia. Some have estimated that there are 70 billion to perhaps 200 billion barrels of oils in the Caspian Sea, but more like the figure is between 20 billion and 95 billion, with most of it in Kazakhstan. By contrast Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest source of oil has 261 billion barrels of proven reserves. If the 200 billion barrel figure is true then the Caspian Sea area holds 16 percent of world’s oil reserves. But the consensus seems to be the Caspian Sea has a lot of oil but claims that it oil was going to replace the Persian Gulf were overhyped. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

The Caspian Sea has proven reserves of 48 million barrels, the third largest reserves in the world, and 292 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Offshore fields account for 41 percent of total Caspian crude oil and lease condensate (19.6 billion barrels) and 36 percent of natural gas (106 Tcf). In general, most of the offshore oil reserves are in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, while most of the offshore natural gas reserves are in the southern part of the Caspian Sea. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates another 20 billion barrels of oil and 243 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in as yet undiscovered, technically recoverable resources. Much of this is located in the South Caspian Basin, where territorial disputes over offshore waters hinder exploration.

Initially a lot of dry holes were drilled, which lowered some estimates. The high costs of extracting and transporting Caspian Sea oil makes it less profitable than oil from other places such as the Persian Gulf. The Soviets failed to grasp the regions potential because they failed to do extensive deep-water drilling.

Many of the oil fields are deep in the earth or are otherwise difficult to reach and developing them was prohibitively expensive for the Soviets. Only since the collapse of the Soviet Union have the sites been exploited as Western companies with their advanced technology and piles of money have developed them. Billions of dollars has been poured into development. In the 1990s there just as many broken contracts, international lawsuits and swindled investors as there were new oil wells and businessmen who struck it rich. Over time the losers were weeded out and few winners remained.

The EIA—the U.S. government’s Energy Information Agency—estimates that the Caspian Sea region produced an average of 2.6 million barrels per day of crude oil and lease condensate in 2012, around 3.4 percent of the total world supply. Production in 1999 was about 1.1 million a day, or 1.5 percent of the world's total.

Money from the oil boom has manifested itself in an increase in the number of Mercedes and Chevy Blazers but relatively little money has trickled down to ordinary people. Even worse is the fact that money that could be used to build the economy is sent to overseas accounts or spent on trophy developments. Local local people, brought up in the Soviet system, have not learned how to start up new business to exploit the boom. For many Caspian Sea people the only way to make money is to poach caviar-bearing sturgeon.

Oil Fields in the Caspian Sea

Oil is found primarily in three areas: 1) the Baku fields, which extends from east from Baku and is shared by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; 2) the Tengiz Field, which is claimed mostly by Kazakhstan and lies under the waters of the northern Caspian Sea; and 3) the Kashagan oil field, a huge deposit discovered in 2000. There is much less oil in territory claimed by Russia and Iran. Large natural gas reserves in the eastern Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan's territory. In the early 2000s, an announcement was made that a large deposit of oil was found in the Severny structure in the north Caspian basin.

Over the past decade, Kazakhstan's onshore oil fields, particularly the Tengiz field, were the biggest contributor to the region's production. As Azerbaijan developed the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) field group between 2006 and 2008, its offshore production began accounting for an increasing part of total Caspian production. Other significant sources of Caspian oil include production in Turkmenistan near the coast and in Russia's North Caucasus region.

While most current Caspian oil comes from onshore fields, the biggest prospects for future growth in production are from offshore fields, which are still relatively undeveloped. Chief among these is Kazakhstan's Kashagan field, believed to be the largest known oil field outside the Middle East. EIA estimates that the Caspian area produced 2.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2012, with large portions reinjected back into fields or flared. The large amount and dispersed nature of Caspian natural gas reserves suggest the possibility of significant future growth in production.

Azerbaijan became an important regional natural gas producer with the start of production in the Shah Deniz field in 2006. Other prospects for natural gas production growth include Russia's North Caucasus region, which has the bulk of the Caspian Sea region's onshore natural gas reserves, and Turkmenistan's Galkynysh field, which a 2009 audit suggested may be the world's fourth largest natural gas field.

Caspian oil and natural gas fields are relatively far from export markets, requiring expensive infrastructure and large investments to transport produced hydrocarbons to markets. The Caspian Sea's periodically freezing waters increase the costs of offshore projects, and shifting regulations create uncertainty for foreign companies investing in natural resources in the region.

Oil Pipelines from the Caspian Sea

The deposit of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea are only as good as transportation and delivery system that can carry them out. The pipelines that existed after the collapse of the Soviet Union were not capable of carrying all the oil that the Caspian Sea has, plus the former Soviet republics on the Caspian Sea don't want rely on Russian pipelines. One analyst called pipelines the “Great Game” of the oil business.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Caspian Sea countries were dependant on Russia's pipelines to move the oil. This gave Russia a lot of power over the other Caspian Sea countries. Building pipelines that bypass the Russian system has been key for countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to break free from of Russia’s grip and establish their independence.

Maps of the Caspian Sea are often crisscrossed with lines and doted lines for existing and prosed pipelines. Many of the existing Soviet-era pipelines—plus some that date back Tsarist times— are too old, too decrepit and have to little capacity to be of much use. Plans build new pipelines have to take into consideration a number of challenges: money, corruption, political turmoil, security and terrorism. Building a pipeline requires hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. To reach Europe from the Caspian Sea requires passing through Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Ossetia, Georgia, Armenia or southern Russia— all places that have been racked by lawlessness and political violence since the break up of the Soviet Union.

Rosmarier Forsythe, an American diplomat an expert on international energy issues, wrote: “All the options are complicated, and none is trouble free because they all either pass through politically unstable areas, involve high costs because of distance and terrain or are politically risky because they offend the sensibilities of one or another of the regional owners.”

Proposed pipeline routes go in every direction from the Caspian Sea: southward through Iran to the Persian Gulf: westward through Turkey or the Caucasus rates to the Black Sea or Mediterranean Sea; Northward to other Russian pipelines; and even eastward through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China.

Lots of pipelines on the drawing boards. Kazakhstan wants to build a pipeline that would run under the Caspian Sea from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Baku, Azerbaijan, which will connect to the BTC pipelines to the Black Sea and Turkey. There is also discussion of building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan across Iran to the Persian Gulf. This would greatly facilitate the export of oil to Asia. The United States opposes this plan because of Iran’s links to terrorism. Also raised, has been the idea of building a pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the port of Karachi. Another is through Iran, Pakistan to India.

The United States favors pipelines to the Mediterranean because the oil doesn’t pass through either Russia or Iran. A pipeline to the Mediterranean is good for the American and European markets but has limited use for Asia. Among the main problems with a Mediterranean pipeline are that the Mediterranean is already oversupplied (oil comes from Algeria and Libya and by pipeline from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran) and there are difficulties reaching Asia where there is the strongest demand. To get to Asia, ships have to be small enough pass through the Suez canal or else travel around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. A pipeline across Iran would make it easier to reach Asian markets.

Caspian Sea Oil Pipelines to the Black Sea

A direct 1,400-kilometer pipeline between Baku in Azerbaijan and Novorossiysk on the Black Sea in Russia opened in 1997. More or less a refurbishment of an existing pipeline, it passes through Chechnya and Dagestan and allows oil from the Caspian basin to reach the Black Sea, where it can be loaded on tankers for easy delivery to Europe and to the United States. Much of the pipeline was built and paid for by a consortium of 12 mostly Western oil companies developing that oil fields in the Caspian Sea.

The pipeline begins in water that is 200 meters deep and takes in crude from different fields. It can carry crude from the fields in Azerbaijan as well as from tankers that deliver crude from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The pipeline includes sections of existing pipelines that were refurbished and upgraded.

The pipeline is owned by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (KTK). The problem with the pipeline is that 150 kilometers of it passes through Chechnya, where it is vulnerable to sabotage and illegal tapping, and tankers that carry the oil have to pass through the Bosporus, which restricts their size.

The Baku-Suspa pipeline goes from Baku to Supsa—a Black Sea port village in western Georgia. It bypasses Chechnya and completed in 1999. There used to a pipeline that ran from Baku through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi but that was closed down in 1932.

Oil Pipeline to the Mediterranean

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline is a 1,120-mile (1,760-kilometer) pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The advantage of this pipeline over ones to the Black Sea is that tankers would not have to pass through the Bosporus. Thus supertankers could load up on oil. Turkey has said it wants to cut down on the tanker traffic through the already crowded Bosporus. It could also bring oil and possibly gas from Kazakhstan. Another advantage is that it bypasses Chechnya.

Dubbed as the world’s largest energy scheme, the pipeline has a capacity of up to 1 million barrels a day and cost $4 billion to build. Financed largely by the BP-led consortium that is currently developing oil in the Caspian Sea, the pipeline is 91 to 117 centimeters in diameter, took 10,000 people to build and has an operation life of 40 years. The oil travels at 7.2 kilometers per hour and passes through the land of 35,000 people, each of who had to give their permission for the pipeline to be built. The pipeline avoids Russia and Armenia. A total of 445 kilometers is in Azerbaijan, 245 kilometers is in Georgia and 1070 kilometers is in Turkey.

The oil is moved through the pipeline by eight pumping stations—two each in Azerbaijan and Georgia and four in Turkey. The speed of flow is monitored by four metering stations, one each in Azerbaijan and Georgia and two in Turkey. The whole pipeline is divided in 88 section, each 20 kilometers long, separated by block valves so the sections can be isolated and cleaned. Environmentalist worry about leakage or the environmental impact of sabotage or a terrorist attack on the pipeline.

The BTC pipeline formally opened in May 2005. The groundbreaking was in September 2002. Construction was originally supposed to start soon after the plan for the pipeline was approved in 1997, however, construction was delayed until the political situation in the Caucasus improved. The pipeline was not be fully operational until the early 2010s.

The Sangachal terminal on the Caspian Sea is south of Baku. It takes in oil from the Gunashi. Chirag and Azery fields and can take oil brought in by tankers from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. There have been proposal be extend it to Kazakhstan. The fact that Ceyhan, where the export terminal in Turkey is, is occasionally rocked by large earthquakes isn’t a problem, planers have said. The section through Turkey and Georgia was built with Turkish money. Security guards monitor the pipeline on horseback in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Pipeline from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea

The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), a new $4 billion pipeline from the Tengiz oil fields of Kazakhstan to the Black Sea, opened in 2001. It goes 1,580 kilometers (948 miles) from Atyrai on the northen coast of the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Novorossisk on Black Sea. From there the oil goes by tanker through the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean. It bypasses Chechnya by going through Dagestan. The pipeline has a 10 mile link to the Dagestan seaport of Mahachkala, which can take crude from facilities from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

The Black Sea pipeline has a carrying capacity of 67 million tons and delivers an average 130,000.barrels a day. Chevron Texaco and Exxon Mobile both have large stakes in this pipeline. The problem with it is that only relatively small ships—60,000 metric tons—are allowed through the Bosphorus. If the oils continues to the United States it is unloaded and reloaded onto a larger ship.

In order to increase the CPS output and delivery range, Kazakhstan has negotiated the use of a newly built pipeline from Odessa in the Ukraine to Brody on the Polish border with an addition to the Polish port of Gdansk, expected to be completed in 2006. This pipeline has a capacity of 67 million tons.

Pipeline from the Caspian Sea to China

Chinese-Kazakhstan consortium is building on a $3.5 billion, 2,900-kilometer-long (1,860 miles long) oil pipeline between Atyrau near the Caspian Sea in western Kazakstan to Alashankou in western China, where it will connect with the pipeline to China’s east coast. The pipeline will initially have a capacity of 400,000 barrels a day and will ultimately have a 800,000 barrels a day.

Oil is great demand in energy-hungry China. The Chinese government is providing money to build it. This pipeline could also be used to transport oil in Siberia to China. The pipe line is being built in three stages. One of the most difficult obstacles will be building the section over the Tien Shan mountains. Construction of the 770-mile-long first stage began in September 2004. Oil started flowing in December 2005 using part of the Russian networks or pipelines.

Oil Wealth and the Caspian Sea or Caspian Lake

The presence of all oil in the Caspian Sea suddenly made Central Asia an important place geopolitically. There was talk of the Caspian Sea replacing Iran and Iraq as major sources of oil. How the resources of the Caspian Sea will be divided among the five nation is unresolved. Discussions are expected to go on for some time. The legal status of the Caspian Sea was governed by treaties between the Soviet Union and Iran. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the five nations that share the sea have repeatedly failed in reaching new agreements.

Lying at the heart of this issue is whether the Caspian Sea is a sea or a lake. If it is a sea it resources are divided in accordance with international maritime agreements in which countries are allowed an economic coastal zone that extends 200 nautical miles (230 miles, 375 kilometers) from the shoreline, or if a zone is less than 400 miles between two countries it is divided equally. If it is a lake, the countries control a coastal zone of about 50 nautical miles and all countries are given control of a common area in the middle.

Iran and Russia regard the Caspian Sea as a lake with common resources because it gives them access to oil and gas deposits they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan regard it as a sea that should be divided into national sectors so they can control resources that are within the sea shoreline limits rather than lake shoreline limits. During conference in Baku in November 2010, the five Caspian nations failed to agree on the answer.

If it is decided that the Caspian Sea is a lake the area in the middle would be treated as an international sea bed and all five countries must agree on how the resources will be exploited, sold and transported and how the profits will be divided up. Under the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Caspian Sea fits most of the criteria to be considered a sea but under the 1921 Treaty of Friendship between the Soviet Union and Iran, the Caspian Sea was treated like a lake with most of its resources—at that time mostly fish and caviar—shared between the two nations. Russia has suggested dividing the sea bed while allowing the waters above to be used by all, which sound good in principal but would allow a country to keep resources in its sector but doesn’t address the issue of how the resources would be transported.

Disputes have broken out as to how the oil wealth should be distributed. Iran wants it be split equally among the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea so that everyone gets 20 percent. Iran currently gets 12 percent. Much of the territory it claims is in Azerbaijan waters. In 2000, an Iranian gunboat drove off BP geologists working for Azerbaijan in an unarmed ship in waters claimed by both Azerbaijan and Iran. Turkmenistan has accused Azerbaijan of looking for oil in its waters. While attempting to negotiate a solution, the black market sales and poaching is rapidly depleting resources.

Pollution in the Caspian Sea

Pollution in the Caspian Sea is a serious problem. The Caspian Sea is being fouled by run-off from unchecked construction, untreated sewage, fertilizers and pesticides, including carcinogens and DDT. Salt lakes that could have been profitable are now so contaminated with chemicals they are health hazards instead. Industrial areas that make plastics and fertilizers have produced foul smells and blemished the and landscape and resulted in high rates of miscarriages and stillbirths and other health problems. Because the Caspian Sea has no outlets it has a limited ability to flush out pollutants. An oil spill in the Caspian Sea would be a great ecological disaster. The oil would not be flushed out as it would in a river or sea. A major oil spill could be devastating and have much more adverse affects than a spill in the ocean. [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999]

Russia is the largest polluter of the Caspian Sea. Every year more than 13 billion cubic meter of wastewater reaches the Caspian Sea, with 10 billion cubic meters coming down the Volga from Russia. Azerbaijan’s share is about 850 cubic meters., which comes down the Kura and Araks Rivers. The Volga dumps industrial wastes, pesticide, detergents, heavy metals, oil and sewage into the Caspian Sea. Large amounts of phenols and oil products have been left behind by the sea's petroleum industry. Southerly currents along the central coast concentrate pollutants around Baku and the Apşeron Peninsula.

Oil is another problem. In the early 1990s a film of oil a quarter inch thick formed on top of the water on the coastline of Baku. Some have blamed the presence of the oil on the rising level of the Caspian Sea. It is though that the film of oil prevents the water from evaporating.

Some parts of the Caspian Sea are being choked by the floating azolla plants imported from the Far East. The spongy plant, which floats on the surface like lily pads, blocks the sun and has created dead zones without any fish. The problem is particularly acute in the Anzali wetlands, 150 miles northwest of Tehran. Azollas were brought to Iran in the early 1980s from the Philippines as a source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer for rice growers.

In recent years the Caspian Sea has become cleaner but that is only because some of the factories that once polluted it have closed down. That trend is expected to be reversed when oil production reaches its capacity. The United Nations-sponsored Caspian Environmental Project (CEP) has the mandate of cleaning existing pollution, prevent pollution in the future and working with oil companies and the government of the Caspian Sea nations to keep the Caspian Sea clean. It is assumed the group will have a better record than the Soviet Union, which established zero tolerance regulations that were ignored by bribe-taking officials.

Fishing in the Caspian Sea

Fishing in the Caspian Sea was once the major livelihood for people that lived around it. Describing the part of Astrakan on the Caspian Sea in the early Soviet period in his book The Black Gulf, the Russian writer Konstanton Pautovsky wrote, "Night and day sunburnt people on the fishing rafts, all covered in scales as with a coat of mail, hauled the mottled carcasses of the sturgeon from the fishing shacks with a boat hook and flung them down with a heavy thud on the planks. Endless files of blue-trousered girls bore carp to the refrigerator, holding the golden, stupid fish by their wet coral gills.”

About 90 percent world's caviar comes from the Caspian Sea. Important commercial fish include several species of herring-like fish, whitefish and a bottom dwelling fish known as duckfish. Catches of fish like pike, perch and salmon have dropped significantly. Until about 30 years age there were seals living in the Caspian Sea.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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