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Caspian Sea Is Dying

11/03/10 By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

On the occasion of the third summit of the Caspian States in Baku, December 2010

Caspian Sea is dying and its littoral states (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) are not able to decide who owns what and what their responsibilities to the Caspian Sea, towards each other and the non-littoral states are.  The main problem is that the newly independent countries (this includes Russia which is not the USSR) around the Caspian Sea are not ready to give an equitable share of the Caspian Sea to Iran.

 On the other side, Iran as a country run by the regime of the Islamic Republic is in no position to force the other states, legally or actually, to accept giving Iran an equal or fair share (as Iran demands).  Therefore, Iran has turned into the biggest obstacle for the general accord of the Caspian littoral states about the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. This may be precisely in line with the national interests of Iran, that as long as Iran has a regime that is not able to satisfy its people's demands in the Caspian Sea, for Iran to stay away from any agreement to finalize the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. 

At the same time, Iran has many sources of oil and gas in its other parts that can be exploited with less difficulty and lower technology and less investment as compared to exploiting its deep coastal areas in the Caspian which is the deepest part of the Caspian Sea.

 But the other countries are not waiting for finalization of the Caspian legal regime.  The cash-hungry newly independent countries around the Caspian sea, are plundering, draining, drilling, dumping wastes, extracting any valuable sources, and pushing some of them like sturgeon fish ( the source of Caspian Caviar), to the brink of  extinction. The public and private sectors of these countries, under the ruling dictatorial regimes that are in hurry to fill up their pockets and those of their friends and families don't care about environmental issues and the future of the Caspian Sea.

On these conditions, the Caspian Littoral states have held countless meetings in various levels and two summits (Ashgabat in 2002 and Tehran, October 2007) to solve their problems and they have failed. A third summit is going to be held in Baku in December 2010 and it is expected to get nowhere.

The littoral states are in no better shape as compared to those two previous summits.  Islamic Republic of Iran is suffering from bad international relations and UN sanctions.  Russians, having gained some points in the previous summit in Tehran ( through Iran's silence to the suggestions of the Russians for dividing the Caspian Seabed on the basis of the shorelines and leaving the surface for common shipping), are now getting frustrated by Iran's insistence on its positions in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has close relations with the US, NATO and Israel and it is probably going to give a base to the Americans (to replace the Injirlik base in Turkey), is said to be one of the possible ways of the Western or Israeli attack against the I.R. of Iran. Kazakhstan is patiently exploiting the oil and gas resources in its own region and does not care about others issues especially in the southern Caspian Sea.  Turkmenistan is still in the process of getting out of the shock of the previous dictator and it is looking to the east, especially due to the plans for the new pipeline of Turkmentian-Afghaniatan-Pakistan-India which is the rival of Iran-Pakistan -India pipeline (peace pipeline).

Although the Caspian littoral states managed to sign the convention to protect the Caspian Sea environment in Tehran in November 2003, no real and fundamental action is taken by any of the signatories to implement it.  This is a testimony to the fact that until the problem of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea in general is settled, the conclusion of such accord to bypass that problem would not work.

The Caspian Sea is in serious environmental danger.  Iran has a small share from polluting point of view, but it gets a much extensive part of pollution created by other countries because of the sea currents in the Caspian Sea.  Russians are the greatest polluters.  They create 80% of the Caspian pollution.  After that, Azerbaijan is producing some of the worst kinds of pollutions because of their outdated oil refineries and other oil installations in the Caspian Sea.  Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan come after Azerbaijan in terms of producing pollution.

According to the report of the Energy Information Administration in 2000: "Untreated waste from the Volga River, into which half the population of Russia - and most of its heavy industry - drains its sewage, empties directly into the Caspian Sea.  Oil extraction and refining complexes in Baku and Sumgayit in Azerbaijan are major sources of land-based pollution, and offshore oil fields, refineries, and petrochemical plants have generated large quantities of toxic waste, run-off, and oil spills.  In addition, radioactive solid and liquid waste deposits near the Gurevskaya nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan are polluting the Caspian as well...   The impact on human health has been immeasurable, and the Caspian's sturgeon catch has decreased dramatically in recent years, from 30,000 tons in 1985 to 13,300 tons in 1990 and then to as low as 2,100 tons in 1994". (1)

Local and international environmental groups point out that the Caspian's ecosystem has already suffered decades of abuse from the Soviets, and is fragile and in need of recovery; not additional stress.  "Decades of lax environmental controls have dumped dangerous toxins into the Volga River, the main source of the Caspian and into the sea itself.  Scientists estimate that each year an average of 60,000 metric tons of petroleum byproducts, 24,000 tons of sulfites, 400,000 tons of chlorine and 25,000 tons of chlorine are dumped into the sea.  Concentrations of oil and phenols in the northern sea are four to six times higher than the maximum recommended standards.  Around Baku, where oil drilling and industrialization have been happening for almost a century, these pollutants are ten to sixteen times higher." (2)

The Caspian sturgeon and the Caspian seal, one of two freshwater species in the world, have been dying in large numbers as a result of polluters or poachers, who have operated with impunity since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

"The sturgeon will be commercially extinct in two to three years," says a World Bank official. (3)  According to a report by AP, dated 21 June 2000, thousands of seals have died in Caspian Sea (4): "Thousands of dead seals have been found along Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea coast, in an outbreak that officials blame on unusually warm weather.  But environmental experts say is connected to oil pollution.  Workers have collected and destroyed the bodies of 11,000 dead seals, Galina Yeroshenkova, an Emergency Situations Agency official, said." Problems of Caspian Sea's pollution can be divided into three types:

1. Chemical pollution by the running rivers.

2. Ecological problems, connected to the rise of the level of water.

3. Offshore oil industry.

Caspian Sea from space (NASA, 2003) -- see high resolution

The offshore oil industry in Azerbaijan sector of Caspian Sea has developed since 1949.  On platforms "Neft dashlari" and "28 April" heavily developed productions and transportation of oil.  At this time sulfuric oil for processing in refiners was transported to Baku from the Kazakhstan coast by tankers.  As a result of oil flood during its production and transportation the level of sea pollution by oil exceeds allowable norm in some sites up to 20 times.   Among the most polluted sites of Caspian Sea by oil are: Baku bay, Apsheron archipelago, Islands, Turkmenbashi, Cheleken, Mangishlak, Tengiz and other sites of oil industry. (5)

Nuclear pollution is one of the less known and rarely discussed dimensions of the serious pollution problems in the Caspian Sea.  At the same time, the radioactive contamination is one of the most damaging and dangerous types of pollution in the world.  The nuclear activities of the coastal states, implications of the former nuclear explosions, the remnants of the nuclear tests, the nuclear wastes (which will be radioactive for thousands of years) and finally the nuclear side of oil exploration and exploitation and transportation (especially by pipelines) are the sources of nuclear danger in the Caspian Sea. The nuclear pollution is not in the same level all over the Caspian Sea.  It is different from the viewpoints of sources and types of dangers.  But if we take into consideration that the Caspian Sea, as the greatest lake in the world, is not connected through natural channels to the high seas, and at the same time, a strange wind current (there are other strange characteristics in the Caspian Sea like its rising and falling levels that is still subject to controversy) keeps steering the water inside the lake like a giant spoon, then the general dangers of the nuclear pollution for all coastal states, even those who have smallest role in the nuclear contamination of the Caspian Sea become more evident.  (6)  

An encouraging sign has been a move towards greater cooperation in protecting the Caspian.  Several initiatives have boosted regional cooperation in protecting the environment, including the establishment of the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP) in conjunction with the Global Environmental Facility.  The overall goal of the CEP is defined as "environmentally sustainable development and management of the Caspian environment, including living resources and water quality, so as to obtain the utmost long-term benefits for the human populations of the region, while protecting human health, ecological integrity, and the region's sustainability for future generations." (7)

I believe that the most important factor in endangerment of environment in the Caspian Sea is oil pollution and all other pollutions that come with it.  Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas resources in the Caspian Sea is the main activity of the future all around the Caspian Sea.

"All five nations now operate tankers on the Caspian that pollute by discharging bilge water and sloppy loading techniques. The largest tanker trader is the Caspian Shipping Co. of the Azerbaijani Republic, or CASPAR. But other states are developing tanker capabilities, most notably Kazakhstan's Kazmortransflot, which in August 2005 launched its first tanker, the $18.75 million Astana. In 2001 Turkmenistan received its first 5,000-ton tanker, built in Turkey, for transiting oil through its Caspian ports of Turkmenbashi, Alaja and Ekerem.....In February 2010, Kazakhstan's Transportation Minister announced that over the next five years it intends to spend more than $860 million to develop its merchant marine, ports and infrastructure and that "by 2012 the merchant fleet will consists of 20 tankers and five dry cargo ships as well as 150 service ships," while Azeri Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev announced Azerbaijan plans to double its oil output, reaching 65 million tons annually by 2010. Given that more than 80 percent of Azerbaijan's oil is produced from offshore Caspian fields, the environmental implications are ominous. Even Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States' oil superpower, is expanding its maritime activities. Last November Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting devoted to shipbuilding industry issues that his administration prioritized the construction of oil platforms and tankers." (8)    

 Therefore, special attention to the oil pollution is necessary.   Happily, the body of laws and regulations concerning the oil pollutions is very advanced in the international law.  The littoral countries have to agree to apply most of those laws and regulations to the environment in the Caspian Sea.  The most important instrument of the international law in this case is the 1973 London Convention (MARPOL) or the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Generally the oil pollutions are the result of two main factors: The operational or deliberate factors, and accidental or un-deliberate factors.

In the field of operational factors the "ballast water" has a special position.  This is the water taken on by all kinds of ships, especially oil tankers when they are not carrying oil cargoes, to keep them operating smoothly.   Naturally they throw the water, which is contaminated when they want to reload.  This causes a considerable amount of pollution.  1973 Convention has very important articles for these cases. 

The other documents that should be taken into consideration are:

1- Convention for Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo 15 Feb.1972).

2- Convention relating to Civil Liability in the field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Material (1971).

3- International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation of Oil Pollution Damage (1971).

4- Contract regarding an Interim Supplement to Tanker Liability for oil Pollution (1971, CRISTAL).

5- International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (London 1954).

6- International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (1960).

7- Offshore Pollution Liability Agreement (OPOL).

8- Tanker Owners' Voluntary Agreement concerning Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (1969).

9- Agreement concerning Cooperation in Measures to deal with   Pollution of the sea by Oil (1971).

10- Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-based sources (1974).

11- International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage resulting from Exploration for, or Exploitation of, Submarine Mineral Resources (1977).

12- Agreement relating to the Establishment of Joint Pollution Contingency Plans for Spills of Oil and other Noxious Substances (1974).

13- Agreement of Cooperation regarding Pollution of the Marine Environment by Discharge of Hydrocarbons and other Hazardous Substances (1980).

14- Protocol of 1984 to amend the International Convention on the establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage1971 (1984).

15- Tanker Owners Voluntary Agreement concerning Liability for Oil Pollution (T0VALOP).

In addition to the above instruments, which are directly relevant to the issue at hand, there are other sets of regional and secondary documents that must be taken into consideration for the purpose of defining an effective regime for the protection of the Caspian Sea environment against various pollutants, especially pollution by oil:

I.Kuwait Regional Convention for Cooperation on the Protection of the Marine environment from Pollution (1978), along with its protocols for on cooperation in oil pollution emergencies, and land based pollutions. 

II.Parts of 1982 UN convention on the Law of the Sea which are related to marine pollution. 

III.Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (1974).

IV.Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution (1976) along with its protocols on Damping (1976), Cooperation in Emergencies (1976), Land-based sources of Pollution (1980) and Protected Area (1982).

V.Regional Convention for the Conservation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Environment (1982).

VI.Convention for Cooperation in the Protection and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the West and Central African Region (1981), along with its protocol for cooperation in emergencies.

VII.Agreement for Cooperation in dealing with Pollution of the North Sea by Oil (1969).

The future of the Caspian Sea depends on how successful will be the Caspian littoral states in finding of a suitable formulas out of all these documents for protection of the unique environment of the Caspian Sea.  The most visible ways in this line are as follows:

1- The experience of the Kuwait regional Convention (1978), which has resulted in establishment of "Regional Organization for Protection of the Marine Environment" (ROPME) in the Persian Gulf, can be very useful in the case of the cooperation of concerned states in the Caspian Sea.

2- Most of general and important instruments regarding the protection of the marine environment, especially those related to the oil pollutions, have reached a stage that is called "mandatory."   This means that all states have to observe them, even if they are not directly party to them. 

3- The Russian Federation is responsible for a considerable amount of pollution in the Caspian Sea.  At the same time, it is signatory and party to almost all-important conventions in the law of the sea and pollution.  The only point is that they do not consider themselves as committed to observe those obligations in the Caspian Sea.  This approach has to change.  The Republic of Azerbaijan, which is responsible for polluting the Caspian Sea by oil during the last 50 years or so, should accept the commitments to observe internationally recognized standards of prevention of oil pollution in these areas.

4- Out of the several thematic centers that are established by the CEP (Caspian Environment Programme) in the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, the Legal Center which is located in Moscow is in charge of preparing regulations.  I do not think that Russians are very interested in preparing regulations most of which most would affect them.   Maybe these centers should circulate among the concerned states before becoming fully independent from the CEP.

5- The local oil and gas companies (like NIOC in Iran, SOCAR in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Russian companies) should adopt special environment-friendly policies in their activities in the Caspian Sea as opposed to their practices in the past and as a guideline for international oil companies. This in especially important because these companies themselves takes part in oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities in the other Caspian Sea states, in addition to what they do in their own states. Unfortunately, at the moment these local oil and gas companies are working under worst conditions in the Caspian Sea.

6- The international oil and gas companies, such as Mobil, Chevron and BP, which are active in the Caspian Sea area, and those which are planning to be present in the oil and gas scene of this area, should agree to observe the same standards of operations that they have in places like the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico, as far as the protection of the environment is concerned.

7- In preparing legal documents and operational standards in the Caspian Sea, due attention should be given to the current international regulations and standards regarding the special areas.  In these areas (such as the Antarctic waters) in addition to the general rules and regulations designed to protect all environments, some particular regulations are in place because of the special geographical or physical characteristics of the areas.  In the case of the Caspian Sea, because this body of water is not really connected to the open seas of the world, it is imperative to have special rules and standards.

8- Establishment of "reception facilities" in certain parts of the Caspian Sea is a necessary action.  As it was mentioned before, one the important sources of oil pollution in the marine environment is the ballast water.  These reception facilities can receive water, which is mixed with oil residues, and return it to the sea after processing.

9- Establishment of oil and gas pipelines in the Caspian Sea should be subject to the internationally recognized standards for protection of the environment.  There are many international documents that can be used as a guide, and these are some of them: The Agreement relating to the Transmission of Petroleum by Pipeline from Ekofisk Field and Neighboring Areas to the United Kingdom (1973), the Agreement relating to the Exploitation of the Frigg Field Reservoir, and Transmission of Gas there from to the United Kingdom (1976).

Notes and references:


2-      Rachel Neville, Environmental Protection in the Caspian Sea: Policy constraints and Perception.

3-      Phillip Kurata, Caspian Ecosystem Menaced by pollution.




7-      Report of the Energy Information Administration


About the author: Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea is a consultant to the World Resources Company in Washington DC Area.

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