In Central Asia: A Sea Dies, A Sea Also Rises

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 09, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
10 November 1994

pen1When Vice President Gore was a Senator, he wrote a book called “Earth in the Balance.” In it he focused on the fate of the Aral Sea, in the Central Asian part of the former Soviet Union. That sea’s level has declined about 50 feet since 1960.

The reason for the decline relates to the large amount of water diverted from the rivers that feed the sea. The water is used to irrigate a few key cash crops such as cotton. At the same time in a nearby sea, something else was happening.


The Caspian Sea level has quietly increased about 8 feet since the late 1970s. To local inhabitants along the sea’s coast, the rising level has been anything but quiet. Coastal villages have been inundated at the same time that inland villages have become coastal ones.

Although its impacts have been locally devastating, it has received
little attention in the media. The sea is the size of France and is getting larger each day.

The Caspian Sea is sandwiched between exotic Central Asia and the southernmost part of European Russia. The world-renowned Volga River has its delta in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, where it terminates its thousand-mile journey through Russia.

By the mid-1970s, the Caspian Sea had reached its lowest level in recent times. As the sea declined, human activities, such as farming, were shifted onto the newly exposed seabed.

The Soviet government responded with engineering solutions, developing plans to bring water to the sea from wetter parts of the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s, the level of the Caspian Sea unexpectedly began to increase and has continued to do so at a rate of about 6 inches per year.

Some Russian scientists have suggested that the level of the Caspian
will continue to rise for at least a century, while others think that it will stabilize by the end of this century.

The author of a 1994 book on the Caspian Sea (“Global and Regional
Climate Interaction: The Caspian Sea Experience”), Dr. Sergei Rodionov,
a research associate at the University of Colorado, points out that assessments of the historical record of Caspian Sea level suggest that, with a warmer global climate, the Caspian Sea would decline in level. Yet it is going the other way, and scientists are somewhat baffled by its cause. Several research projects are under way to identify the causes of the changes in sea level.

The Caspian Sea used to be the focus of concern of only two countries: the Soviet Union and Iran. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, new countries now border the sea: Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Parts of Russia (Kalmykia and Dagestan) are also adversely affected. Managing the resources of the Sea has thus become politically much more complicated. Presently, the main concern of the newly formed governments is how to maximize oil production. The Caspian seabed is considered to be oil-rich, perhaps even rivaling the Persian Gulf.

Environmental problems are mounting: coastal inundation because of sea-level rise, water pollution by raw sewage and oil production, pollution and fishing pressure, and impacts on fish populations (especially sturgeon, the main source of high-value caviar). But, whose sea is it now? Which country has responsibility for stabilizing the sea level, or reducing water pollution, or protecting fish?

The countries in the region are faced with a multifaceted environmental situation that involves both natural and human causes. Because no one country, acting alone, has the resources to adequately address — let alone resolve — the situation, there is an urgent need for cooperation among the circum-Caspian countries in using science, politics, and economics to deal with regional creeping environmental problems and their societal consequences.

Meanwhile, not too far eastward from the rising Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea lays dying.


Photo: M.Glantz, former Karakalpak fishing village

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