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Will Caspian Sea become another Aral?
By Marina Kozlova

United Press International

28th June 2004

The Caspian Sea, the largest inland body of water on Earth, is in danger of turning into an environmental dead zone, a development whose impacts would be felt throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe, scientists told United Press International.

Five countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- surround the Caspian but wastes from Russia's industrial facilities carried down the Volga River provide the sea with the most pollution.

The region's oil reserves are estimated at more than 200 billion barrels, which puts it in second place after the Middle East. Exploration and exploitation of oil fields account for another major component of the pollution.

In terms of oil, and from an environmental standpoint, Azerbaijan's oil facilities are among the worst in the world, Bahman Aghai Diba, a consultant on international law for the World Resources Company in McLean, Va., told UPI. Azerbaijan has been using oil resources both within and close to the Caspian for about 80 years.

A rise in the sea's level also has been causing problems. For example, between 1978 and 1995, between 700 and 1,200 oil wells have been flooded in Kazakhstan, said Alexander Bolshov, a consultant for the Atyrau branch office of the Kazakh agency for applied ecology.

"Nobody knows an exact number of flooded oil wells," Bolshov told UPI. Oil is leaking out of some wells, he added.

Oil pollution levels in different parts of the Caspian are between 1.5 times and 11.8 times the maximum permissible concentration, Bolshov said.

Copper in the northern Caspian exceeds the maximum permissible level by 3.9 times. The zinc concentration, at a short distance away from the Cheleken Peninsula in Turkmenistan, exceeds the MPC by 7.2 times, he said.

Although copper and zinc are used as nutritional supplements, they are heavy metals that can damage living creatures at certain concentrations and tend to accumulate in the food chain.

Along with seals, sturgeons -- fish used for food and the eggs necessary for the caviar industry -- are dying in the Caspian in large quantities. The reason, Bolshov said, is migration of toxic substances up the food chain -- a process that tends to concentrate those substances in creatures at the top.

"Irreversible processes will start if water pollution reaches a critical level," he said.

The more money that has been invested in the oil industry in Kazakhstan's western Atyrau province -- on the northern shore of the Caspian -- the higher sickness rates have become, said Muftach Diarov, director of the Scientific Center for Regional Ecological Problems of the Atyrau Institute of Oil And Gas.

"The main issue is the enforcement of the existing laws," Aghai Diba said. "The lack of agreement on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea is hampering the legal and enforcement efforts."

Illegal and unregulated fishing has reduced the sturgeon stocks by more than 80 percent in the Caspian, according to Aghai Diba. The U.S. government is considering declaring some types of the caviar producing fish as endangered species, he added.

"Convention for the Protection of the Caspian Sea was adopted recently by all Caspian countries but adoption itself is far from implementation," Ljubomir Jeftic, an environmental management expert from Croatia, told UPI.

Jeftic has evaluated two projects of the Global Environment Facility on the Caspian for the United Nations Environment Program and for the World Bank.

Jeftic cited a lack of planned coastal development and the ability of governments surrounding the Caspian as contributing the most damage to the ecosystem.

"Money is a big problem," he added.

People will finally kill the Caspian if the present pollution trend continues, said Hamid Amirebrahimi, director of the South Caspian Institution for Environmental Services in Tonekabon, Iran, and public participation adviser for the Caspian Environment Program, which is governed by a committee of representatives from the five coastal Caspian states.

"In a polluted environment, human life is also under threat," Amirebrahimi told UPI.

"The pollution will affect the whole area," Aghai Diba said. "The littoral (coastal) states must be responsible for the extent of pollution that they cause. The Caspian Sea must get out of the status of a free garbage dump."

Amirebrahimi considers the activity of the Caspian Environment Program and The Framework Convention on Environment of the Caspian Sea, signed by all Caspian littoral states in November 2003, the only hope.

"Nothing should be done, but stop the Caspian pollution," said Ramiz Mamedov, head of the Center for the Problems of the Caspian Sea and deputy head of the Institute of Geography in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The waters of the Caspian would not be able to self-purify for 40 years, he told UPI.

Marina Kozlova covers Central Asia for United Press International.