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Kazakhstan: Caspian Sea Rise Threatens Cities, Industries, Oil Fields

Almaty, Kazakhstan; 18 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Little understood forces are making the world's largest inland sea even larger, threatening an environmental and economic catastrophe measured in the thousands of millions of dollars.

The Caspian Sea lies east of the Caucasus Mountains and, sprawling over a territory larger than Germany, dominates the endless plains of western Central Asia. It's bordered on the north and west by Russia, on the west by Azerbaijan, on the south and west by Iran, and on the east by Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

It long has been famed as a source, now dwindling, of a large share of the world's supply of fine caviar. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Caspian has come increasingly to the world's attention as a source for another form of black gold -- oil.

Sukru Bogut, a Turkish-educated mining engineer and geologist, vice president in New Orleans of Drilling Measurements, Inc., a petroleum industry service company, recently published Caspian Oil Perspectives, a research paper. He quotes press reports of possible oil reserves in the Caspian basin of 178,000 million barrels. If that promise were realized, the Caspian's oil wealth would fall between Iraq's known 100,000 million barrels and Saudi Arabia's 261,000 million.

This buried wealth takes the rise of the Caspian Sea out of the realm of local nightmare to that of international crisis. But for more than five years, the nations of the world, including those on the Caspian shores, have met the problem with kiloliters of talk and cc's of action.

A recent 92-page special report on the Caspian Sea published by Focus Central Asia in Almaty, Kazakhstan, reviews the modern natural history of the Caspian. For most of the century before 1930, the sea was stable, averaging 25.8 meters below sea level. But then it started a long drop,and reached 29 meters below sea level in 1977. The drop exposed expanses of seabed. Agriculture, homes, and industry followed the receding sea to remain close to the shoreline.

The Focus Central Asia report describes one official reaction this way: "Heroic projects were conceived to reverse the flows of several Russian rivers which empty to the north." The report says: "Fortunately, the largest part of these plans remained on paper. The exception was a solitary project completed in Turkmenia in 1980 (in which) Kara-Bogaz-Gol Bay was closed off by a dam. Later it became necessary to blow up this dam. The water rose with such speed that it created entirely new problems."

Beginning in 1978, the Caspian Sea has been rising -- three meters in 19 years. The shoreline has moved by more than 20 kilometers. Nobody knows for sure why.

One theory is that the cause is tectonic, that underground stresses affect the flow of water from the natural springs that, along with rivers and direct precipitation, feed the sea. This theory holds that the same forces that are inundating the lands on the Caspian shore may be contributing to the disastrous shrinking of the much smaller Aral Sea, several hundred kilometers to the east.

But the dominant theory is that the changes are climactic, a chaotic and unpredictable mix of cloud cover, air temperature, precipitation, and human activity. In any case, most predictions are that the water level will rise another meter by the year 2010.

Historically, rises in the Caspian Sea level were inconveniences, not disasters, to the predominantly nomadic Central Asians. As one Kazakhi put it: "People just rolled up their yurts (sheepswool tents) and went somewhere else." In modern times of highrises and fixed homes, multimillion-dollar agriculture, and oil installations and other technology, the rise threatens catastrophe.

The Focus Central Asia report says that damage in Kazakhstan already amounts to $2 billion. Potential damage to the oil industry is $250 million. Some 300,000 people live in the future flood zone.

In Azerbaijan, 800 homes already are gone. Potential damages by 2010 amount to $4.1 billion, up to $1.75 billion of that to the oil refining industry alone. Russia's damages have reached $7 billion and could double by 2010. Turkmenistan and Iran face proportionate losses.

Dr. A. Tolkatchev, senior assistant secretary to UNESCO's International Oceanographic Commission, called the situation two year's ago "An Environmental Emergency." He reported on a workshop of various international organizations in May 1995 that reached an agreement to study the crisis and adopted a work plan. He wrote, "In recent years, a number of agencies (UNEP, WMOJAEA, UNESCO, World Bank, UNDP, WHO and IMO) have conducted missions and meetiings and have initiated projects related to this problem."

He did not respond, however, to telephone calls and messages to him in Paris seeking information on any actions that may have resulted from these studies.

The countries of the region have done no better. Sultan Sarsembayev of Kazkhstan's water supply engineering commission, proposed last year the construction of 1,100 km of dikes at a cost of $3.5 billion. Meanwhile, the Kazakh government's annual budget for Caspian preservation was equivalent to $5 million.

Straton Nizhnikov, a specialist in Kazakhstan on the Aral Sea's contrasting exigency, has said, despairingly: "Perhaps we'll have to wait for the flood to happen and die down on its own before anybody really gets interested."