The Caspian Sea is a landlocked body of water situated between Asia and Europe. With a surface area of 371,000 square kilometers and a volume of 78,200 cubic kilometers, the Caspian Sea is the largest lake on earth in terms of both area and volume. It has a maximum depth of about 1,025 meters.
The Caspian Sea is bordered by Iran (Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan provinces), Russia (Dagestan, Kalmykia, Astrakhan Oblast), Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan (Balkan province) and Kazakhstan, with the Central Asian steppes to the north and east. On its eastern Turkmen shore is a large embayment, the Garabogazkol.
The sea is connected to the Sea of Azov by the Manych Canal and the Volga-Don Canal.
Major Iranian cities near the Caspian Sea are Sari, Astara, Bandar Anzali, Rasht, Chalous, Ramsar and Noshahr. The sea is estimated to be about 30 million years old. It became landlocked more than 5 million years ago. Discoveries in the Huto cave near the town of Behshahr, Mazandaran, indicate human habitation in the area as early as 75,000 years ago.
According to IRNA, it is known as Mazandaran Sea in Persian antiquity and as Khazar Sea in modern Iran. The word Caspian is derived from "Kaspi", ancient peoples that lived to west of the sea in Trans-Caucasia.
Besides exceptional forests, rivers, plants and animals, the Caspian Sea holds huge reserves of sturgeon, which yield eggs that are processed into caviar.
Overfishing is threatening the sturgeon population such that environmentalists advocate banning sturgeon fishing completely until its reserves reach a sustainable level.
The Caspian Seal is endemic to the Caspian Sea, one of the few seal species living in inland waters. The area has given its name to several species of birds, including the Caspian Gull and the Caspian Tern.
There are several species of fish indigenous to the Caspian Sea, including Kutum, Caspian Roach, bream and a species of salmon. Caspian Salmon is critically endangered.
Oil & Gas
The Caspian Sea is rich in hydrocarbon resources. Apart from the recently discovered oilfields, large natural gas reserves have also been reported which require further exploration to define their full potential. Recent estimates put the volume of oil reserves at around 50 billion barrels.
A key problem is the status of the Caspian Sea and the establishment of the water boundaries among the five littoral countries. Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed an agreement in 2003 to divide the northern 64 percent of the sea among themselves, although the other two bordering countries, Iran and Turkmenistan, did not agree to this.
At present, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have reported the biggest increase in oil production, a rise of 70 percent since 1992. Despite this, the region is still producing less than its potential capacity, with a total regional output of 1.6 million barrels per day.
The spotlight on oil and gas reserves highlights the sorry state of the environment in and around the sea. Years of neglect have left the sea and the surrounding region in a precarious situation environmentally.
Petrochemical and refining complexes in Azerbaijan are major sources of land-based pollution, and discharges from oil and gas drilling have had a serious impact on the Caspian environment.
Untreated waste from the Volga River--into which half the population of Russia and most of its heavy industry drain their sewage--empties directly into the Caspian Sea, while pesticides and chemicals from agricultural runoff are threats to the sea's flora and fauna. Thousands of seals that live in the Caspian Sea have died since 2000 due to pollution that weakened their immune systems. And overfishing, especially of the prized sturgeon, has caused a dramatic decline in fish stocks.
Oil and gas production in the region will inevitably result in the construction of pipelines and infrastructure to export these resources to consumers, raising the possibility of loss of habitats for marine life as well as the specter of accidental spills.
The rise in Caspian Sea waters could flood oil wells, rigs and earth-walled reservoirs along the coastline, spilling into water tables and contaminating drinking water supplies.
A lack of regional cooperation, highlighted by the still unresolved legal regime, as well as weak environmental laws and the inability to enforce them, is hampering efforts to protect the Caspian environment.
Oil and gas extraction, along with transportation and industrial production, has been the source of severe air, water and soil pollution in the Caspian region. Systematic water sampling in different parts of the Caspian basin has revealed contamination from phenols, oil products and other sources.
Pollution from oilfields, refineries and pipeline construction continues at a high rate due to the use of outdated technology, malfunctioning equipment and human disregard. However, even conventional processes of oil and gas extraction have environmental side-effects. Loud sounds used in seismic surveys in oil and gas exploration can have a range of negative effects on marine creatures.
The drilling of offshore exploratory wells involves the introduction of various materials into the marine environment, such as toxic and non-toxic materials and drilling fluids.
The effects of oil and gas exploration and production have been felt most strongly in Azerbaijan, where a century's oil production activities have resulted in acute soil degradation and contamination problems.
Recent estimates put the volume of oil reserves at around 50 billion barrels.
The sea's location is another factor complicating efforts to protect the regional environment. Since the sea is landlocked and the littoral states are not major energy consumers, in order for the Caspian oil and gas to reach intended customers, it must be transported via pipeline. A number of Caspian region oil pipelines have been built or are under construction, and several regional gas pipelines have been proposed as well.
Far more serious than oil and gas pollution are the agricultural, industrial and local wastes that pour into the sea. Pollution from rivers that feed into the sea still accounts for 85 percent to 90 percent of the pollution.
The Caspian Sea still has miles of undeveloped coastlines, especially along the eastern shore in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan where there are no permanent inflows. Yet the south end of the sea is deep, dark gray and polluted by discharges from sewers and factory drains from the five littoral states.
The sea is the source of about 90 percent of the world's caviar. However, the lack of an international agreement safeguarding its environment has led to overfishing and poaching of sturgeon, resulting in dwindling fish stocks. Iranian environmentalists have warned that poaching of beluga, the largest and rarest of the sturgeon, is pushing the species toward extinction.
Iranian officials have reported a steady drop in caviar production, one of the country’s main non-oil export items, blaming it on poaching and oil prospecting by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.
Legal trade in the black fish eggs from the Caspian Sea is estimated to be worth $100 million per year, but the illegal catch in the four former Soviet republics is believed to be 10 to 12 times higher.
In the spring of 2001, the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned exports of caviar from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.
The ban spiked the price of beluga caviar, which gave further incentives to poachers. Despite opposition from the environmentalists, in 2002 CITES lifted the export ban on the former Soviet republics, citing improved management of their sturgeon stocks.
According to the Caspian Environment Program (CEP) Director Hamid Reza Ghaffarzadeh, some six million people from Iran, three million from Baku and Azerbaijan, as well as three million from Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan live along the Caspian shores.
Ghaffarzadeh said there is an urgent need to protect the Caspian environment for future generations.
“Continued economic development, improved regional cooperation and modern technology will be required to improve the Caspian Sea’s environment in the coming years,” he said.
He added that the chief aim of the CEP is to achieve sustainable economic development and growth for the people living along the Caspian shores and protect its unique environment.
Despite the severe air, water and soil pollution in certain areas, it is still possible to save such a precious landlocked body of water from further contamination and destruction.
It is hoped that bilateral agreements between the Caspian states will give rise to a unanimous multilateral agreement. Without broader cooperation among the littoral states, the Caspian Sea and its surrounding areas will continue to face environmental degradation.