Kazakstan’s Alarm as Caspian Sea Shrinks 

Islands have appeared in the world’s largest inland body of water, heightening concerns about its future.

Kazakstan’s Alarm as Caspian Sea Shrinks 

Islands have appeared in the world’s largest inland body of water, heightening concerns about its future.

In Aktau, the capital of Kazakstan’s western Mangystau region, the Caspian Sea has receded dozens of metres away from the city and kilometres away from the northern coast.
In Aktau, the capital of Kazakstan’s western Mangystau region, the Caspian Sea has receded dozens of metres away from the city and kilometres away from the northern coast. © Talgat Umarov
Wednesday, 19 July, 2023

Kazak authorities have declared a state of emergency over the Caspian Sea’s receding waters amid grave threats to the region’s ecology and economy. 

The largest inland body of water in the world, the Caspian Sea supports the local fishing industry, agriculture, and other livelihoods. It is also a rich natural habitat, home to crustaceans, seals and fish, including most of the earth’s sturgeon. Falling sea levels pose a severe challenge to their future.

In June, local government officials in Aktau, the capital of Kazakstan’s western Mangystau region, issued an alarm over the retreat of the waters. The shrinkage has been recorded since 2006, but it appears to have accelerated since 2016 and reached a critical pointlast year.

“Everyone was aware that the sea receded,” said Azamat Sarsenbaev, a blogger and activist based in Aktau. “But what happens now has never been seen before. In particular, the sea has moved dozens of metres away from the city, causing islands to appear because of the decline in water level.”

Five countries share the Caspian shoreline but the drop in water levels is most evident in Kazakstan: the sea has receded kilometres away from the northern coast.

“This can be explained by the fact that the given area of the sea has mild slopes of the seabed and adjacent shoreline, and even small changes in the sea level contribute to significant flooding or shrinking of the coast,” the ministry of ecology told IWPR in a written statement. “During the period, the area of the body water declined by more than 22,000 square kilometres, and over a half of them belong to the Kazakstan section of Northern Caspian Sea.”

In 2018 Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakstan, Russia and Turkmenistan settled decades of territorial disputes which arose with the fall of the Soviet Union and signed a convention defining the legal status of the body of water. 

On June 8, Kazakstan's authorities in Aktau declared a state of emergency over the critically low level of the Caspian Sea. © Talgat Umarov


This is not the first time that the sea level has changed. From 1930 to 1941, scientists measured a fall in sea level from -26.07 metres BHS - the Baltic Normal Height System, one way used to measure water levels - to -27.85 metres BHS. Further shrinking in the 1960 and 1970s led to a low of -29 in 1977,  causing changes to the shoreline change and the desertification of coastal areas.

The sea level began to rise after 1978, reaching 26.62 metres BHS by 1995, but it has been declining since 2006.  In 2022, its level reached -28.7 metres BHS, alarming government officials who previously described these fluctuations as normal.

“The drop in the sea level to the level of -28.5 metres, given the history of the Caspian Sea, is critical for both its ecosystem and marine sector,” the ministry of ecology added in its response.

Experts agree that the key reason is climate change. Higher temperatures have caused  a combination of low precipitation and high evaporation. Climate change has also hit the sea’s tributary rivers, the Volga and the Ural, which have suffered from a lack of snowfall.

Europe’s longest river, the Volga runs through Russia and flows into the Caspian Sea, feeding over 90 per cent of its water. In 2022, its flow rate reduced from 238 to 212 cubic kilometres. 

Although the Ural, which runs through Russia and Kazakstan, feeds no more than two per cent, it also plays an important role in the reproduction of fish resources. Its flow has declined by 50-60 per cent, leading to degradation of spawning sites and the river’s ecological state. 

“The rivers have also been over-exploited,” noted Sarsenbaev, highlighting both the retention of water by hydroelectric power stations and increased consumption. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many dams were built on these rivers. Their waters are used for agriculture, while cities are located along the Zhaiyk [Ural] and the Volga, which feed them.” 

Kirill Osin, an ecologist and director of the EcoMangistau NGO, agreed. 

“As well as rivers receiving less water in a natural way, there is a factor of irrational use of water, silting of riverbeds,” he said, adding that climate change had increased evaporation and reduced the water return via precipitation.

Osin maintained that the current level of shrinking of the Caspian Sean could not be called critical as the body of water had a cyclic behaviour, but stressed that this should be monitored closely, with joint cross-border operations to address conservation issues. 


Some measures have already been taken. In October 2020 Kazakstan and Russia signed an “integrated roadmap” to study the river basins. Kazakstan’s environmental ministry stated that they were gathering and analysing relevant data, with a deadline set for the end of 2023.

In November 2022, Kazakstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave instructions to establish a state institute for Caspian Sea research, due to be inaugurated by the end of 2023.

To Osin, however, these steps were too general. 

“I don’t see today that any significant measures are being taken,” he said. “There are only speeches by the presidents and the government, yet no instructions or decisions follow. However, ‘water diplomacy’ should have started working with the Russian part of the Volga River a long time ago.” 

The future is worrying. According to long-term forecasts prepared by the Kazgidromet state enterprise, in the “moderately severe” and “severe” climate scenarios, by 2030 the sea level could reach -29.23 metres BHS and -29.63 metres BHS respectively.

Indeed, a study from 2020 predicted that the sea level would decline by a further nine - 18 metres by 2100, meaning the lake would lose at least 25 per cent of its size – an area roughly the size of Portugal. The consequences could be devastating, for humans and nature alike.

“As the livelihoods and food security of millions of people depend on the Caspian Sea, a loss of these ecosystem services will have drastic socioeconomic consequences and may trigger local and regional conflicts – in an ethnically diverse region that is already rife with tensions,” the authors of the study wrote.

“We should start work to adapt to climate change as soon as possible,” Osin concluded.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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