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Caspian apple of discord
07.09.2011 12:56

Valery Tumanov, commentator

The Caspian Sea remains the apple of discord for the five littoral states, and they are trying to resolve the situation at different levels and in different formats. On September 16-17, the Kazakh city of Aktau on the seacoast will host another event devoted to the Caspian problems, the Paradigms of International Cooperation in the Caspian Sea conference.

In the early 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, disputes concerned division of the water zone. Today, the parties are arguing about rational use of the sea’s natural wealth, environmental problems, navigation practices and a pipeline initiative, which is close to becoming a working project.

The debates are getting hotter. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are nursing plans to lay a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would transport their energy to countries that need it. By connecting the eastern and western coasts of the sea with a pipeline, Baku and Ashgabat, which have huge gas reserves in their respective parts of the sea, hope to sell it to Europe and Asia, at a large profit, of course.

No wonder that both countries are actively lobbying the idea. To a certain extent, they are supported by Kazakhstan, which is not as rich in gas, but still has some and hopes to benefit from the project.

These plans are vigorously opposed by Russia and Iran. Critics can definitely say that the reason for their stance is that they don’t have gas reserves in their parts of the Caspian Sea. However, Moscow and Tehran have forward a fairly solid argument: environment protection. Laying a pipeline across the sea will further aggravate its already serious environmental problems and may even result in an ecological crisis, experts say.

It should be remembered that since the Caspian Sea became a source of oil production after the war, in the late 1940s, the environmental situation here has changed drastically for the worse. At the time, a unique piled town – Neftyanye Kamni – was built 100 km from Baku, in the open sea. This was the starting point for negative changes in the vulnerable organism of the closed Caspian Sea basin.

First of all, industrial presence affected the sea fauna: many species have disappeared, unable to tolerate the influx of oil, which is harmful for living organisms. The first to suffer were the famous Caspian sturgeons; the equally popular Caspian herring was seriously damaged, and so were other species that in the past had earned the sea the fame of a water body with the ideal natural environment for rare fish.

There is no need to say how much the unmerciful exploitation of oil and gas fields has reduced the reserves of the Caspian black caviar, a delicacy that brought the Soviet Union significant returns on exports. However, the returns on exports of oil and gas – strategic energy resources – were even higher, which made the Kremlin allow the development of Caspian fields.

And now, Baku and Ashgabat want to join the race for windfalls promised by the gas pipeline construction. If the Caspian Sea was their own, it would be their own business. But it washes the shores of another three states, and the problem of the water zone’s pollution and the need to preserve the natural integrity of the sea’s unique characteristics – something geographers and biologists from all over the world keep calling for – are a common task for all the five littoral states.

Construction of the pipeline, doctors say, may affect even the Caspian Sea’s recreation zone: its resorts are used widely for treating and preventing different diseases. Fields development, oil shipments and oil spills have already spoiled many Caspian beaches. The pipeline would further aggravate the situation.

At an international symposium held a few years ago and devoted to the Caspian Sea, participants emphasized the need to treat it carefully, to develop oil and gas fields sensibly and to preserve precious bio resources. The sea needs efficient treatment facilities that will bring water pollution to a minimum, scientists said. Unfortunately, the way littoral states treat the Caspian Sea and its problems leaves much to be desired.

Another closed sea nearby, Aral, has already been wiped out. It would seem that this horrible example should provide a sufficient lesson. But no, profit rules the world and it is much stronger than the threat of an environmental disaster.

Yes, the energy needs of the present-day economy are enormous, and the Caspian Sea’s huge energy reserves may partially meet them. But it should be done with caution, sensibly, without getting euphoric about predatory exploitation of the sea wealth.

It is too early to say whether the five littoral states will agree on the pipeline and other disputed issues. One thing is clear, though: the Caspian Sea has not yet become a sea of understanding, a connecting bridge in relations between the countries whose shores it washes. This unique sea remains an apple of discord, the topic of heated debates on problems that need to be resolved with responsibility to the nature and to future generations.

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