Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Special Report: Landmark Caspian Treaty Only the Beginning

After eight years an environmental convention on the Caspian Sea has been signed - but what will it mean in practice?
By IWPR correspondents

The five states bordering the Caspian Sea have signed a long-awaited framework convention promising to halt ecological damage to the sea, but some environmentalists are treating it with caution.


The Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment was signed in Tehran on November 4, at a meeting of ministers from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakstan and Russia. Turkmenistan signed the convention four days later.


The document obliges all sides to "undertake all necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the Caspian Sea".


The Caspian Sea is the biggest freshwater lake in the world and its ecological system is very sensitive to change. It is home to 90 per cent of the world's sturgeon stocks and a wide range of birds and sea animals. Almost all the black caviar in the world comes from the sea's sturgeon. But since the end of the Soviet Union, it has suffered enormously from unrestricted pollution and dumping, and an alarming decline in sturgeon numbers.


The convention - the result of eight years of negotiation, and eight meetings between the five countries - was drafted with help from the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, which is forming a secretariat to oversee implementation of the agreement.


However, this is only the beginning of the process. The convention sets standards for the countries to adhere to. It now has to be ratified by all five parliaments, which need to take practical steps to enforce environmental legislation.


"I can tell you honestly that I am incredibly pleased that all five states have signed," Fritz Schlingemann, UNEP's regional director for Europe, told IWPR by telephone from Geneva. "I now have rather good hopes for the ratification process. My dream is for ratification within two years. But it is very difficult to say, as each country has to fully internalise the process."


"This is one of the few areas where there is a strategic action plan agreed by all five countries with different political systems."


Kazak deputy environment minister Nurlan Iskakov welcomed the agreement saying, "This convention creates a framework to deal with many legal issues."


Iskakov said the five countries are now obliged to coordinate work to combat environmental degradation. "The document sets out the principle of 'zero waste', which means that it is forbidden to dump any waste into the sea," he said.


Azerbaijani environmental expert Rustam Mamedov said, "It seems that all sides have now realised what a catastrophic state the Caspian is in." He backed the document, which many had believed would not be signed before the countries around the sea sort out its legal status.


The convention states that it does not prejudice the outcome of ongoing talks about the legal division of the Caspian Sea.


However, public awareness about the agreement was still very low several days after it was signed. No non-governmental organisations, NGOs, were present at the Tehran meeting, although some were involved in earlier discussions and Schlingemann said they had been invited to attend.


Isa Baitulin, a leading authority on the Caspian in Kazakstan, told IWPR, "We scientists do not participate in the [high level] meetings, which are attended mostly by bureaucrats.


"I have not heard anything about the agreement, although together with a group of scientists we have worked out a national strategy for protecting the Caspian."


Baitulin said, "NGOs are independent organisations and are able to give an objective picture of the situation. They have accumulated a lot of research data and expertise."


Even some government officials are in the dark. Dagestan has 490 kilometres of Caspian coastline, but three leading officials including Akhmed Mungiev, who is deputy head of the main directorate of the republic's natural resources ministry, admitted to IWPR they had received no information about the convention signed in their name.


Several experts said they were sceptical that the convention is anything more than a statement of good will. Rasim Musabekov, a political analyst in Baku, agreed that it was an important step, but added, "It is difficult to say how successful and effective the implementation of the agreement will be."


A leading environmentalist in Kazakstan, Mels Eleusizov agreed, saying the scale of the environmental problems was so wide that it would require many more negotiations to regulate oil production, fishing and industry around the Caspian.


Eleusizov noted that the five countries often pursue competing interests. Countries like Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan, which have substantial oil reserves in their part of the Caspian, are interested in oil production, he said, while for Iran and Turkmenistan, the main benefit is from marine and coastal resources.


Environmentalists say that unrestricted dumping of industrial and domestic waste and unregulated oil production has made the Caspian one of the most polluted water basins in the world.


According to UNEP, more than 200 species in the Caspian basin are now under threat of extinction.


In the last 15 years, there has been a nearly tenfold reduction in sturgeon numbers. Apart from the decrease, scientists noted that health of the fish stock has deteriorated with pollution affecting their flesh and their reproductive capacity.


Scientists say the rare Caspian seal - found only on the inland sea - is vulnerable to pollution in and around the sea. In November this year, local ecologists reported mass death of birds after tests were carried out on oil wells in Atyrau in western Kazakstan. According to the regional environmental protection department, subsequent tests revealed that the water contained high level of chemical ingredients, and samples of air tested revealed large quantities of soot.


The same thing is happening on the other side of the Caspian, in Dagestan. According to Margarita Borisova, from Dagestan's Environmental Protection Agency, they are regularly uncovering mass deaths among seals caused by industrial waste.


According to Magomed Guruev, an official with Russia's natural resources ministry, nearly 30 tonnes of oil hydrocarbons, 50 tonnes of iron and 5 tonnes of copper and zinc are dumped into the sea every year.


Dagestan has a big problem with untreated sewage being dumped into the sea and oil and diesel pollution from Chechnya contaminating the rivers that flow into the Caspian. An environmental project funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and worth 15 million US dollars was halted because of the war in Chechnya.


The ecological catastrophe has hit the local population, which breathes polluted air, uses impure water and farms contaminated land. In Kazakstan, the rate of blood diseases among people living in the Caspian region is two to four times higher than the national average. But despite warnings from the health authorities, many people still go to local beaches, endangering their health.


Many people live by poaching sturgeon for caviar, and other illegal activities which are helping destroy the environment and wildlife of the sea, and it will be difficult to involve them in enforcing the convention.


The Neftchala region south of Baku where the river Kura flows into the Caspian is home to 72,000 people for whom the lucrative business of sturgeon poaching is the prime source of income.


"Thirteen years ago I worked at a canning factory in Neftchala and earned a good salary," said Hussein - not his real name - aged 50. "I used to go fishing in my spare time just for myself. But now I am forced to do it just to feed my family."


Across the other side of the Caspian, Irina Rudakova, a housewife in the Kazak city of Atyrau, voiced similar resistance to change, "Yes, we have a mortality rate from cancer, people are sick with terrible skin diseases, but most of us don't think about that, as we can't do anything about it.


"What's more, most of us are against bringing in extremely tough measures against poaching, as they live entirely off fish - they eat it, sell caviar and special varieties of fish. Because of oil production, we have recently started living better and salaries have gone up. If we have to stop all that because of the environment, we will just die of hunger."


This article was written by Roman Ivanov of Megapolis newspaper in Almaty; Aitken Kadyrbekov of Nachnyom s Ponedelnika newspaper in Almaty; Eduard Poletaev, IWPR's Kazakstan director in Almaty; Kamil Piriev, Radio France International correspondent in Baku; Samira Guseinova, a freelance journalist in Baku; Musa Musaev, a freelance journalist in Machachkala, Dagestan; and Thomas de Waal, IWPR Caucasus Editor in London.