Caspian Sea

[by Gabby Ongies]

Map of Caspian SeaThe Caspian Sea is a sea in name only; in actuality, it is the largest lake on the planet, with a surface area of 143,244 square miles (371,000 square kilometers). Unlike many other lakes, the Caspian has no outflowing rivers, and major rivers such as the Volga, Ural, Kura and Terek feed into the sea. (Wikipedia). It also contains salt water instead of fresh water from the remnants of the ancient Thetis Ocean and its gulf, the Parathetis. This heritage, as well as the Caspian’s isolation early on, allowed a unique environment to flourish, preserving many ancient species, such sturgeon, the source of some of the most prized caviar in the world. However, the uniqueness of this environment also makes it incredibly sensitive to human activity, and the Caspian has suffered environmental damage due to overfishing, industrial and agricultural pollution, and mineral and oil industries (Aladin). Bordered by five countries – Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – the Caspian has become an issue of dispute on an international level, dealing with issues relating to the environmental damage of the Caspian, but also over mineral and oil rights and strategic military use.

The Soviet Union originally held a treaty with Iran over the division of the Caspian Sea’s resources. However, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of countries bordering the Caspian went from two to five, and the logistics of resources became difficult. The Caspian support a thriving fishing industry, contains mineral resources such as oil and natural gas and has access to international waterways, either through the Volga or the canals that connect the Caspian to the Black and Baltic Seas. These resources are favorable possessions, and each country wants to have open access. Yet, creating a treaty that satisfies all parties will be extremely difficult (Wiki). Part of the difficulties lie in the fact that the Caspian can be seen as both a sea and a lake. The Caspian is technically a lake, according to scientific definitions of a lake, but is so large and “un-lake-like” that calling it a sea often seems more appropriate. This confusion makes it difficult to know which body of law the Caspian should be regulated by. But, even if the issue of what type of body of water the Caspian is was resolved, the laws dealing with either seas, such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the many laws used to deal with international lakes would provide little or no guidance for creating a treaty because many consider the Caspian a sea, not a lake. Even then, the abundance of oil and natural gas makes gaining territory on the Caspian all the more important, especially for Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan because these states need these resources help them grow into their independent status (Romano).

For Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, having rights to the Caspian allows them to build up economic strength and develop into stronger states. Not only would they have access to oil and natural gas reserves, but with access to international waters, they would have the freedom to export resources without having to rely on Russia or Iran to help transport the resources out of their countries. The fishing industry is also beneficial to these countries, giving them another resource to help grow their economies. However, Russia and Iran also want these resources, especially oil and natural gas, using their power to obtain resources. This power struggle puts all five of the countries in a precarious position, one that could lead to political or even armed conflict. Russia appears to be constantly preparing for such a possibility: in the fall of 2011, Russia performed military maneuvers in tandem with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In these maneuvers, Iran is the enemy; Russia sees Iran as the only real threat to its power and control over the Caspian Sea. Russia, in an attempt to neutralize Iran, has continuously reached out to the former Soviet Republics in an attempt to create an alliance against Iran (Diba). However, whether or not Russia can continue to hold this sway over Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan as the countries become more self-sufficient remains to be seen.

While the political environment and debate over how to divide the Caspian Sea is a problem, the environmental damage in the Caspian is perhaps even more important. Pollution from industry and agriculture in Russia flows down the Volga and pollutes the Caspian, while the natural gas and oil drilling destroys the environment through leaks in pipelines and spills from oil rigs and refineries. Heavy metals are also becoming an issue that quickly impacts the fish in the Caspian, contaminating the sturgeon so prized for caviar, and increasing the possibility of human contamination. However, these issues are not irreversible, and if measures are taken to address these issues, the Caspian will continue to be a source of fish, as well as a unique environment (Aladin). The biggest obstacle to decreasing pollution is the abundance of natural gas and oil in the Caspian, and the desire of bordering nations for the rights to these resources, regardless of the environmental costs. Pollution coming into the Caspian from feeding rivers proves to be problematic in a similar way because most of the pollution comes from industry and agriculture, two things that help drive an economy. Unless these countries can find another way to gain economic wealth, they will continue their ways, and the Caspian environment will continued to be threatened by pollution.



Works Cited

  • Aladin, Nicolai, and Igor Plotnikov. World Lakes, “The Caspian Sea.” Last modified June 28, 2004. Accessed March 22, 2012. Sea 28jun04.pdf.
  • Diba, Bahman Aghai. Payvand Iran News, “Russian Maneuver in the Caspian Sea: who is the hypothetical enemy? .” Last modified December 18, 2011. Accessed March 23, 2012.
  • Romano, Cesare PR. CEPMLP, ” The Caspian Sea Dispute: The Role of International Law.” Last modified 2000. Accessed March 23, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Caspian Sea.” Last modified March 20, 2012. Accessed March 22, 2012.