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Caspian: Unique Ecosystems Face Environmental Threat

Landlocked between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran, the Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water on earth, and home to numerous and diverse ecosystems. But will this unique environment last? Observers warn that years of neglect have left the Caspian in a precarious state.

Prague, 27 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Caspian Sea region is home to more than 700 species of vertebrates, including swans, seals, and sturgeon that produce the vast majority of the world's caviar.

But the region's unique biodiversity is threatened by the political diversity of its littoral states. Environmental protection laws are weak and largely unenforced. The legal status of the sea itself remains unresolved.

As a result, some 20 percent of the region's species are threatened with extinction. Toxic waste has polluted much of the Caspian coastline, and threatened the health of both the region's humans and wildlife.

Parvin Farshchi is an advisor to Iran's Department of Environment and a participant in the Caspian Environment Project, which produced a recent report on the key ecological challenges in the region. He told RFE/RL: "[The report] has identified the major environmental issues in the Caspian Sea, basically: decline in sturgeon fisheries, decline in biodiversity, pollution resulting from oil and gas exploitation and exploration, damage to infrastructure of the costal area, desertification [and] mismanagement about the coastal planning in coastal management. And recently, we have faced for the last few years the introduction of invasive species."

But there is reason for hope. The so-called Caspian Five -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran -- have finalized an action plan aimed at tackling environmental issues on a regional basis rather than a national one.

The plan, established with the support of international agencies, aims to halt the deterioration of the regional environment while promoting sustainable development. Farschi said all five littoral states are due to endorse the plan by October of this year.

The collective agreement aims to help the littoral states take steps to protect the Caspian environment even as the formal question of the sea's status remains unresolved.

Each of the Caspian Five has contributed to the region's environmental decline. Oil-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are generally considered the worst polluters, responsible for runoff from petrochemical and refining complexes as well as spills from oil and gas drilling.

Russia, meanwhile, continues to drain vast amounts of raw sewage and industrial runoff into the Volga River, which empties into the Caspian. Aleksei Yablokov, who heads the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, an NGO based in Moscow, said post-Soviet privatization has stripped the country's industry of antipollution measures.

"[Water-]purification systems belonged to factories. These factories turned into several private enterprises. One big state factory turned into hundreds of small private enterprises. Nobody put money into purification equipment. And municipalities have no money at all. So the level of water pollution is now bigger than it was 10 years ago," Yablokov told RFE/RL.

Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent Iran, also share responsibility for the degradation of the Caspian environment. Timur Berkeliev, of the Catena Ecology Club in Ashgabat, says the country's oil ventures have contributed to the ecological contamination.

"[Turkmenistan] has some sources of pollution too, of course, including the Turkmenbashi refinery. The situation is changing now [because] they created a cleaning facility [about two years ago]. But still we have polluted water, a polluted bay in the Caspian Sea, and polluted soil around [it]. So this is maybe the most important source of pollution [in Turkmenistan). Another source is our offshore oil fields," Berkeliev told RFE/RL.

Several of the region's national parks have tried to protect ecosystems in both the wetland and aquatic areas of the Caspian Sea. But activists say they have difficulty fighting illegal fishing and the introduction of invasive species that destroy indigenous fish, animals, and plants.

Perhaps the most pervasive problem is that of sturgeon poaching. Last month, Kazakh naval guards boarded a foreign vessel that had strayed into the country's territorial waters. The "Kazakhstan Today" newspaper reported the guards found 5 tons of sturgeon and 25 kilograms of caviar.

Berkeliev of the Ashgabat ecology group says poaching and over-fishing -- both problems exacerbated by the lack of an official Caspian status -- have driven sturgeon and other species to the point of extinction.

"The resources are depleted," he said. "We've lost 90 percent of sturgeon stocks, and [almost all commercial] big-fish stocks. And the last one, [the] sprat, is a small fish, and we are losing this stock now. During [the last] couple of years we lost maybe 80 percent of this stock. It is not connected directly with pollution. It is connected mostly with [commercial] fishing and dam construction on the Volga River."

Berkeliev is not optimistic that much will change, despite efforts like the Caspian Environment Project. He said the race to tap into the region's resources -- from fish to oil and gas -- far outweighs any desire to protect its delicate environment.

Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy is also skeptical. He said new laws and agreements like the recently finalized action plan can do little to improve the situation.

"I'm skeptical. In Russia during the transition to a market economy, nobody has followed the law. No law can help us here. The main problem is illegal fishing. It's impossible to stop it because people are so poor that they need something to eat. They need money. Sometimes the only way to survive for them is illegal catching. [There is] also an enormous mafia, an enormous caviar mafia -- enormous. We have no immediate solution, we have no solution," Yablokov said.

In order to help preserve the region's wildlife, Yablokov said, governments must give greater support and economic opportunity to local communities. At the same time, steps can be taken to mitigate the pollution caused by the region's growing energy sector.