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Caspian: States Sign Declaration At Inaugural Ecology Conference

The first international conference devoted to the ecological situation of the Caspian Sea concluded today in Kazakhstan. The Caspian Sea has come under threat from both increased human activity in the region and fundamental geopolitical changes. And although the offshore policy and legal status of the Caspian Sea has not been finalized, all of the littoral states say they are interested in preventing further environmental damage.

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day conference -- Caspian Ecology 2003 -- was organized by Kazakhstan's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and was attended by officials from the Caspian's five littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) and representatives of international organizations and companies working in the region.

The Kazinform news agency quotes Vladimir Shkolnik, Kazakhstan's minister of energy and mineral resources, as saying yesterday: "It is very good that besides the representatives of governments who have many times discussed the problems of the Caspian Sea, scientists, and representatives of all companies dealing with oil production have gathered today on the Caspian Sea coast."

The main topic of the conference -- held in Mangistau Oblast -- was ecological safety during the development of the Caspian shelf's oil resources. The primary objective was to elaborate a joint action plan to improve the situation in the Caspian region by encouraging cooperation between government and private environmental companies working in the area.

Today, participants signed a universal declaration on the ecology of the Caspian Sea.

At the conference, Shkolnik reported that the Kazakh government has already approved a work plan for 2003 to 2005 as part of a government program for developing the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea. The plan calls for companies working in the Caspian region to adhere to increased ecological requirements proposed by Kazakhstan.

One of the priority measures aimed at improving the ecological situation in the Caspian is a plan to clear up sunken oil wells drilled from the 1930s to the 1980s in the coastal zone. The most dangerous wells are those in the flood zone.

Interfax reports that implementation of the plan will make it possible to ensure oil production in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian of at least 100 million tons of oil and 63 billion cubic meters of gas by 2015.

The plan also calls for monitoring flora and fauna in the region.

Ibragim Kushenov, head of the Caspian Nature nongovernmental organization, stressed the urgency of this measure.

"Now, the flora and fauna of the Caspian [Sea] is in danger. If all the oil companies working in the area do not take care of this issue the problem will get even worse."

Scientists in Russia say the ecology of the Caspian Sea is under threat from large jellyfish that are destroying the flora eaten by sturgeon and other sea life. Caspian sturgeon supply about 60 percent of the total caviar harvested worldwide.

Caroline Raymakers is a regional director in Brussels for TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. She says, "With regard to ecological threats to the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, I think the jellyfish problem there is a real threat. It's a high risk, and experience in the Black Sea has shown how bad it can be and how fish stocks can collapse, as well as other biological resources in the sea. With regard to oil pollution, this is different, and there are a lot of questions to be asked about the previous exploitation and the present exploration and exploitation which are now under very heavy and strict international legislation. So the situation is quite different with regard to that resource."

Pollution has also contributed to the recent decline in the population of the Caspian's seals. Several years ago, a mystery epidemic killed several thousand seals in the area.

Discussions at the conference focused on the activities of oil companies when performing operations, modern ecological technologies in offshore oil operations, control and prevention of oil spills, as well as the participation of international organizations in projects aimed at improving the Caspian environment and preserving the ecosystem.

On 3 September, an oil spill occurred in the Kazakh port of Aktau, caused by a technical defect in a tanker valve. This resulted in oil being spilled into the sea through the tanker's access hatch.

Many scientific works have been dedicated to pollution of the Caspian environment caused by organic and inorganic chemicals and hydrocarbons. In May of this year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a state program for the development of hydrocarbon resources in the Kazakh sector. This will presumably include measures to prevent further pollution of the Caspian Sea.

Other conferences on the ecology of the Caspian Sea held in the past have not achieved significant results, however.

A major Caspian Sea conference was held in Moscow in February 2002. Turkmenistan -- one of the littoral states -- did not take part. Azerbaijan took the lead but stressed environmental issues that were considered out of context. Iran sent high-level officials who conveyed Iranian positions not fully accepted by Tehran, while Kazakhstan talked about the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea concept of "enclosed or semi-enclosed seas," which had nothing to do with the existing situation in the Caspian Sea.

A meeting on Caspian ecology was also held in Tehran in January. It was attended by representatives of the five Caspian states. During the meeting, a draft convention on the protection of the Caspian environment was discussed and signed. But as Kushenov said, Iran has failed to comply with measures aimed at improving the ecology of the Caspian.

"For a long time, we have been supporting Iran's position [on the Caspian Sea]," he said. "Its position was to take care of the local environment as a priority. And now even Iran has changed its position. It used to control 18 percent of the Caspian Sea waters. Now they ask about giving them 20 percent of the Caspian Sea, pushing forward the idea of the joint exploration of the Caspian seabed and completely forgetting the environmental issues."

It is hoped the conference just concluded will produce positive results that will be enacted by the five countries concerned. In any case, plans are being made to hold an international Caspian ecology conference every year. Caspian Ecology 2004 is scheduled for autumn 2004 in Istanbul.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)