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close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart III: The Caspian Sea
close this folder8. Environmental policy-making for sustainable development of the Caspian Sea area
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentMorphometry and the principal hydrological features
View the documentThe water balance and water-level variations
View the documentThe economic impacts on the Caspian states of the water-level variations
View the documentOther development issues requiring international cooperation
View the documentConclusions
View the documentAcknowledgement
View the documentReferences

The economic impacts on the Caspian states of the water-level variations

The present situation

On the flat territory of the northern and north-western coast, which belongs to the Russian Federation, even small increments in the water level mean large losses of land. If the water level reaches -25 m, 16,500 km2 will be lost, of which 10,000 km2 would be inundated and 6,500 km2 waterlogged. This land has oil and gas wells, roads, irrigated and other arable land, etc. At -25 m, 114 human settlements would be inundated, with a total population of 100,000. The frequency and magnitude of the floods caused by wind action will increase. The current strategy in the Russian part of the Caspian coast is to plan for a water level between - 26 and -25 m, keeping in mind wind-caused floods up to -23 to -22 m. Construction of a protecting dike with a road along the top is envisaged for most of the north-western coast. In addition, special engineering action is foreseen to protect certain towns and the railway going north-south along the coast. This railway is the only one leading from the centre of the country to the south that does not cross the zone of the recent military conflict and political instability in the northern Caucasus.

Information on damage to the territories of the riparian countries other than Russia is scanty. The north-eastern shoreline belonging to Kazakhstan is also extremely flat. Wind-driven waves cause floods, which are the biggest nuisance. The height of these floods reaches 2.32.8 m, with inundation inland up to 30-40 km (Kuksa, 1994). During the last quarter of the twentieth century there have been 10 floods like this. During wind-induced flooding, behind the flooding wave (that is, towards the Sea) an area of low sealevel is formed, up to 3 m below the average within a band 10-15 km wide. Western Kazakhstan is rich in oil and gas resources. A sealevel rise and the associated increase in the frequency of wind-wave inundations are very serious obstacles to further development of the oil and gas industry.

In Turkmenistan the increase in sealevel has created some problems as well. The most serious situation is around the town of Cheleken, situated on the peninsula of the same name. During the days of relatively high sealevels before 1930, Cheleken was an island. Then, with the drop in sealevel, it became a peninsula. Now, it is turning once again into an island. The dike that protects the town has been destroyed by waves and dozens of apartment buildings are under water, along with two adjacent settlements. Oil and gas pipelines, the main road leading inland, and port installations have been damaged; drilling rigs and power supply lines are surrounded by water. Sewage treatment facilities in the area and, hence, the ecology of the Sea are endangered. In some places sea water has penetrated inland by 40 km (Kuksa, 1994).

A unique feature on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea is the Bay of Kara-Bogaz-Gol, which belongs to Turkmenistan. In 1980 the area of the Bay was 9,500 km2. The water level in Kara-Bogaz-Gol is a few metres below that of the Sea, and there is a constant flux of water into the bay. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the water level was about -26 m, the flux to the bay was about 20 km3 a year. The bay served as a large evaporation pan. Water evaporated in the bay, leaving a brine that was very rich in valuable chemical elements and salts. By 1980, the brine contained 270-290 g of salt per litre. The total volume of the brine was 20-22 km3 and its average depth was 2.1 m. The total amount of dissolved salts was 6 billion metric tons (Bortnik, 1991), supporting a productive chemical industry.

In 1977-1978, however, with the water level close to -29 m, the discharge of water to the bay was only 5-7 km3. To slow down the drop in the level of the Caspian Sea, a decision was made in 1978 to cut off Kara-Bogaz-Gol from the rest of the Caspian. This was accomplished by March 1980, after the sealevel had already begun to increase. The bay stayed completely cut off from the Sea for four and a half years, during which about 50 km3 of Caspian water had been saved. This corresponded to a 12-14 cm rise in the level of the entire Sea. However, by that time it was no longer needed. By the first half of 1984 the valuable brine had dried up at the surface of the bay and much of it had crystallized and settled on the bay's bottom. A viable chemical industry had died. It was then decided to restore the connection between the bay and the Sea. Now, a new, much smaller brine basin is being formed inside the bay close to the strait. The current status of the chemical industry is not known. The problem, which had been created by the Soviet Union, is now in the hands of the new state of Turkmenistan.

In Iran, the impacts on its flat coastal landscape have also been considerable. Protecting barriers of 8.5 km have been built, and an additional 27 km are needed (Mojtahed-Zadeh, chap. 9 in this volume).

In Azerbaijan, the Lenkoran Lowland is a continuation of the lowlands of Iran. In the town of Lenkoran at least 500 houses have been destroyed and 800 hectares of fertile land have been lost. The protected nature area of Kizil-Agach, a wetland convenient for wintering a great variety of migratory birds, is now almost completely under water.

The need for international cooperation

This brief review of the damage associated with the rise in the level of the Caspian Sea brings us to a very important conclusion: stabilization of the level of the Caspian Sea is in the interests of all countries surrounding the sea. This might provide a basis for international cooperation with regard to a lot of give-and-take issues. Obviously, a total or partial stabilization of the sealevel is beyond human means, but some modest degree of control is possible, as the Kara-Bogaz-Gol experience has demonstrated. Another possibility would be to use the flat territories of the north-eastern Caspian as evaporation pans; they had in fact been working that way before the sealevel dropped in the 1930s.

Theoretically, it is also possible to control the sealevel by regulating water consumption in the basin, mainly in the Volga River basin. However, this would involve a very complex political problem: the Volga and its basin belong to one country, the Russian Federation, while the Caspian Sea belongs to five. Moreover, the portion of the shoreline belonging to Russia is modest. Management of an international lake (or sea) by means of action in a large but national river would not be a trivial diplomatic issue.

Another option would be large water transfers from neighbouring northern basins. About 10 years ago such proposals were sharply (and justly) criticized by the environmental movement. Neither the present political climate nor current levels of science and technology are yet good enough to reconsider such projects.

Developing a common strategy for sustainable economic activity on the Caspian Sea (and its shores) under conditions of drastic changes in the sealevel is a very good subject for negotiation and cooperation. It is not, however, a trivial subject; international cooperation is not just desirable but absolutely necessary.