9 November 2011, 10:43

The Caspian Sea: Extremely complex issues

The Caspian Sea: Extremely complex issues

The Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked enclosed body of water on Earth, has been an exclusive economic zone of Russia and Iran for nearly 300 years. Originally, the status of the Caspian Sea was enshrined in the Treaty of Rasht signed by the Russian Empire and Persia in 1729.

The Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked enclosed body of water on Earth, has been an exclusive economic zone of Russia and Iran for nearly 300 years. Originally, the status of the Caspian Sea was enshrined in the Treaty of Rasht signed by the Russian Empire and Persia in 1729. It was then specified by a number of rider agreements between the two countries. The last such agreement signed between the Soviet Union and Iran in 1940 described Caspian as an enclosed sea that belonged to the two countries.

Four more sovereign states sprang up on the Caspian after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, triggering a territorial dispute between Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran which is still to be settled.

The Caspian Sea region Proven crude oil and natural gas reserves has about 3 percent and 5 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves, respectively. 

The current ecological condition of the Caspian Sea causes ever-increasing concern. The world’s largest intercontinental basin, the Caspian Sea has a surface area of 370,000 square kilometers. Its waters and coastal areas are divided into special regions with their own unique biodiversity. About 130 rivers provide inflow to the Caspian, with the Volga River being the largest. This world famous Russian river remains the source of 75 percent of the Caspian’s freshwater inflow.

Developing deposits and transporting hydrocarbon fuel are being closely watched by environmentalists who have repeatedly pointed to dismal signs of degradation of the Caspian ecosystem. They also cite a drastic decline in the population of sturgeon, seal and sprat in the Caspian Sea, which they say is an ominous dismal signal.

In 1995, representatives of the five Caspian countries agreed to create a legally-binding cooperation mechanism to help protect and preserve the Caspian Sea environment, in a move endorsed by the UN. In 2006, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea. 

The document, the practical implementation of which had repeatedly been postponed, specifically obliges the five to contribute to the protection of the Caspian Sea environment from all sources of pollution.

In August 2011, the 3rd session of the Conference of the Signatories to the 2006 Tehran Conference was held in Kazakhstan. The gathering saw the signing of the additional Protocol Concerning Regional Preparedness, Response and Cooperation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents by the four Caspian states. Turkmenistan declined to ink the document, citing its “special stand” on the matter.  In this connection, the Institute of Oceanography of the Russian Academy of Sciences along with the international public organization ISAR mapped out a project named “Oil Pollution of the Caspian Sea According to Data of Spatial Radiolocation

The Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project is seen as the main ecological threat as far as the Caspian region is concerned. The proposed pipeline would run under the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan - something that specialists say is almost certain to affect the sturgeon population. It is no secret that the oil and gas industry generates loud and continuous sounds, not least through pipeline and platform construction, which specialists say may finally prove fatal for the Caspian Sea’s native sturgeon, as it will not be able to overcome the pipeline-caused underwater vibro-acoustic barrier during its annual migration.  Also, it is worth noting that the Caspian Sea is located in a seismically active zone with all that it implies, including earthquakes and underwater mud volcano eruptions, which in turn may badly damage a potential pipeline in the area.

Political analyst Yuri Solozobov told the Voice of Russian that there is speculation that under pressure from the EU, two Caspian countries, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, will lay an undersea Trans-Caspian pipeline along the Caspian bottom so as to pump gas to countries of Southern Europe and partially, to Ukraine. However, under the Declaration of Caspian littoral states of 2010, all exploration work and pipeline construction on the Caspian coast can go ahead only in case of consensus from all five Caspian states. These comprise Iran, Russia and Kazakhstan. Apparently, Russia and Iran will never give their consent for the construction of an undersea pipeline, if only for environmental considerations.

In Moscow, Kirill Tanayev, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, cites the still-unresolved legal status of the Caspian Sea, which he says makes talks on the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline irrelevant. “What I mean, Tanayev says, is the pipeline is designed to provide gas for the notorious Nabucco project, which is very unlikely to be implemented in the near future given a whole array of relevant financial and legal problems, which are yet to be resolved. To make things worse, not all parties concerned have taken part in a full-fledged discussion of the project yet. This is why the parleys on a possible construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline with the participation of Azerbaijan and Turkey are nothing but lip-service.” he said.

As for Turkmenistan’s “special stand”, it reflects Ashgabat’s fears over the implementation of its energy projects, including the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, which should become part of the EU-endorsed Nabucco project to transport Central Asian fuel to Europe. Paradoxically, the environmental protection-savvy Europeans now prefer to turn a blind eye to the Caspian Sea-related ecological risks.

The signing of more protocols to this effect is expected during the 4th session of the Conference of the Signatories to the 2006 Tehran Convention Parties, due in Russia in 2012.

According to the international law, the status of a water area can be modified only by consent of all coastal nations. For this reason, the position of Russia makes sense. Russia insists that decisions on the Caspian Sea should be taken by the five littoral countries on the basis of consensus. This means that the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project cannot go ahead if even one country is against it.

Russia also believes that the Caspian countries are quite capable of sorting it out among themselves without any mediators, such as the US or the EU, who have no access to the Caspian.

Turkmenistan offers a different principle under which the consent of all five Caspian states is not necessary. What is necessary, Turkmen officials say, is the approval of those countries through whose territories the pipeline will run, and these are Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. This idea, initiated by the US in order to push Turkmenistan into launching the project, is a provocative one. There can be no projects to build gas transportation facilities on the Caspian without a decision on the legal status of the Caspian Sea approved by all five countries. The more so since the Caspian Sea is an inland water reservoir, too vulnerable from the ecological point of view. Complete sovereignty of the Caspian national sectors and consequently, no control over their compliance with environmental requirements, could inflict serious damage on the sea as a whole on account of breaches of environmental standards by one of the parties.

Disputes over whether the Caspian Sea should be seen as a lake or a full-fledged sea are to blame for many of the problems the region is facing at the moment. Until the end of 1996, Russia referred to the Caspian as an “enclosed sea”, as stipulated by the Soviet-Iranian agreements; Azerbaijan described it as a “border lake”, and Kazakhstan and Iran preferred to speak of it as “neither a sea, nor a lake”. In October 1993, Turkmenistan adopted a law on the national border, unilaterally setting its Caspian border along the boundary of the 12-mile coastal strip. At that time, Turkmenistan tended to see the Caspian as an inland sea.

In the absence of a compromise, new options were offered for the division of the Caspian. Some called for “dividing the bottom and sharing the water”. According to this option, the Caspian bottom would be divided into economic zones and each state would have a sovereign right to oil and gas reserves within its zone. While the Caspian water area was to remain in common use, issues related to fishing, environment and navigation were to be addressed by the Caspian countries at the negotiating table.

Russia and Kazakhstan were the first to support this principle. In 1996, it formed a foundation for setting up a working group for the development of the Convention of the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. But the difficult process of reaching agreement on the Caspian did not stop there, In November 2010, Baku hosted the Third summit of the Caspian heads of state, but like the previous ones, it ended without solution. Nevertheless, the agreements signed in Baku confirmed that it was the Caspian states that had to ensure the security of the Caspian Sea. 

In addition, presidents of the Caspian Five have agreed to wrap up work on the Caspian Sea Convention at the Fourth summit, which will take place in Russia at the end of 2011.

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