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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Another Dying Sea

Washington, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Sea of Azov is dying, but none of the prescriptions being recommended by experts to save it appear to be either economically or politically possible.

Russian scholars told a Moscow newspaper last week that the Sea of Azov in southern Russia is now at the point of catastrophe. The amount of water flowing into the sea has declined by 15 cubic kilometers over the last 40 years, the salinity of its waters has increased by three percent, and the amount of petroleum and heavy metal pollution has increased as well, with large amounts of radioactive materials now being recorded.

As a result, the scholars told "Vremya MN" that the sea's formerly rich biological diversity is being destroyed. Commercial fishing yields have fallen 97 percent since the 1970s, and many unique species have become extinct. If current trends continue, the Sea of Azov will become yet another dead sea, a body of water that cannot support either life within it or the lives of the people who live around it.

According to the scholars that work at the Azov Fisheries Research Institute, people and governments have long known what was happening but have been unable or unwilling to do something about it. More than 20 years ago, scholars there and in Moscow developed a mathematical model of the Sea of Azov, one that accurately predicted both what would happen to the sea and what human beings needed to do to save it.

According to the newspaper, several steps must be taken now if this body of water is to avoid a premature death. Commercial fishing should be prohibited for about 20 years, and poaching prevented. Moreover, the government must insist that any industrial waste being discharged into the sea be processed so as not to harm the environment. Shipping must also be reduced, and any oil and gas exploration and processing simply banned.

But as the paper notes, "everyone understands that the realization of such plans is unrealistic." No one is going to be willing to stop the construction of a major terminal on the Sea of Azov or close the existing Taganrog port. For even the minimal steps, such as cleaning industrial discharge, "there are no means," the experts said. And because of the economic hardships the region is suffering, there is little willingness to crack down hard on poaching.

As a result, the experts told the paper, about the only thing the Russian government can be expected to do is to control and regulate the amount of fish harvested each year and try to save a few of the species now threatened with extinction. Such steps will not save the sea, but they may prolong its life for a few additional years.

The sad fate of the Sea of Azov is especially disturbing because of the matter-of-fact way the newspaper reports it. Many people have been agitated for a long time about the pollution of Lake Baikal in Siberia and about the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Indeed, both of these developments have helped to power environmental and even political movements.

But the Sea of Azov has not attracted equal attention or generated an analogous political response. Instead, a small group of scholars has complained to a single newspaper, and both the scholars and the newspaper seem convinced that Moscow does not have the necessary funds to act and that nothing is likely to be done.

Given Russia's various problems, they may be right. But the problems in the Sea of Azov are likely to have an impact on other countries as well. The Sea of Azov drains into the Black Sea, and consequently, its problems are likely to become problems for that larger body of water, affecting fishing and commerce for all the littoral states. And because the Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean, its problems can in turn affect an enormous area.

Fifty years ago, few thought that the drying up of the Aral Sea would happen or would matter. Now, as the body of water approaches its end, the disappearance of the Aral is affecting the health of people across Central Asia and weather around the entire northern hemisphere.

Now, as the article in the Moscow newspaper last week makes clear, few people seem to care about the fate of the Sea of Azov. But the problems the newspaper describes strongly suggest that the impact of the death of that sea will be seen far sooner than 50 years from now.