Five Caspian Nations Ready to Reverse Conservation Crisis

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 26, 2006 (ENS) - For the first time, the five nations that border the world's largest lake have entered into a legally binding agreement amongst themselves, and in less than three weeks it will enter into force. A treaty to protect the marine environment of the Caspian Sea commits the five governments to prevent and reduce pollution, restore the environment, and to use the sea's resources in a sustainable and reasonable manner.

Known as the Tehran Convention after the city where it was adopted, the new treaty will enter into force on August 12.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, as it is formally known, will coordinate efforts by the Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan to reverse an environmental crisis.

Caspian

The Caspian Sea as viewed from space (Photo courtesy NASA)
"The Caspian Sea's fragile environment is extremely vulnerable to the region's current boom in oil and gas exploration. Climate extremes and economic and political challenges also put pressure on the Caspian's natural resources,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), under whose auspices the Convention was negotiated.

With an area of some 370,886 square kilometers (143,200 square miles), the salty Caspian Sea is the world's largest lake. It is fed by 130 tributary rivers, but one - Russia's Volga River - accounts for 75 percent of the total inflow.

The Caspian is crossed by a growing network of pipelines and transport routes, including the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which opened last year to pump Caspian oil to world markets.

But the region still has great potential for ecotourism and for sustainable fisheries and agriculture, conservationists maintain.

"Restoring the Caspian's fisheries and unique habitats to health while reducing industrial pollution will boost the well-being of millions of people living in this beautiful but troubled region," Steiner said.

"This new Convention is yet another example of how environmental cooperation can promote both political goodwill and sustainable development,” he said.

Under the Convention the five governments will:

Reduce industrial pollution. The Caspian Sea is polluted by industrial emissions, toxic and radioactive wastes, agricultural run-off, sewage and leaks from oil extraction and refining, a growing industry in the region.

rigs

Oil rigs in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. (Photo by Alex Nitzsche courtesy OSCE)
A particular challenge will be to address the potential consequences of the recent growth in oil and gas production. The five governments are to prevent and reduce pollution from seabed activities, land-based activities, ships and dumping.

Protect marine living resources. The Caspian is rich in biological diversity and is inhabited by at least 400 species found nowhere else. The deep decline of the sturgeon fisheries and the current halt in caviar exports under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is evidence of how environmentally troubled the sea has become.

The building of dams and hydroelectric plants on the Volga River has fragmented habitats and harmed many vulnerable species, UNEP says.

Deaths of thousands of seals along Caspian Sea shores in 2000 and 2001 have been associated with high concentrations of DDT. Similar high levels of this agricultural pesticide have been found in fish and sediments.

In addition, now that ships can enter the Caspian Sea via the Volga-Don Canal, it is easier for invasive alien species such as the highly destructive North American comb jelly to become established and to compete against indigenous species.

Relying on the precautionary principle and the best available scientific evidence, the five governments pledge to improve coastal management systems and protect, preserve and restore the Caspian's marine living resources and use them in a rational manner.

Baku

Baku, a port city on the Caspian Sea, is Azerbaijan's capital and largest city. (Photo by Alex Nitzsche courtesy OSCE)
Address the problem of fluctuating water levels. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, the Caspian Sea's surface level fluctuates over time. From 1880 to 1977 the sea dropped four meters (13 feet). Factors could include tectonic shifts, climate variations, sedimentation and human actions, UNEP suggests.

A sudden reversal in 1977 was a surprise, inundating coastal areas and causing billions of dollars in damages. Efforts to control water levels in an eastern arm of the Caspian known as the Kara Bogaz Gol have proven particularly destructive. The Convention stresses the importance of ensuring that any future efforts to manage water levels do not harm the human or natural environment.

Collaborate on emergency response. The Convention commits its members to cooperate on protecting human beings and the marine environment against the consequences of natural or human-caused emergencies. It calls for the development of a detailed plan on prevention, preparedness, information sharing and response measures.

Monitor and assess the environment. The Caspian Sea governments will cooperate on scientific research, environmental impact assessments and information exchange. The participating governments established the Caspian Environment Programme in 1995 following an environmental assessment by UNEP, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank.

To mark the Convention's entry into force, UNEP, through its GRID-Arendal centre, together with the Caspian Environment Programme has launched a new publication entitled "Vital Caspian Graphics: Challenges Beyond Caviar.”

The report's state-of-the-art maps and graphics examine key vulnerabilities as well as solutions to the issues addressed by the Convention.

With the Convention in force, the Parties will meet on a regular basis to assess progress and consider the need for additional action or for new legal protocols. Their first meeting likely will be held in early 2007.

The Convention text and information on the Caspian Environment Programme is posted at www.caspianenvironment.org.

"Vital Caspian Graphics” with maps and other environmental information can be found by clicking here.