Caspian ecosystem menaced by pollution

Environmental groups are calling for vigorous measures to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Caspian Sea as international energy companies penetrate into the Caucasus and Central Asia to extract oil and natural gas. By Phillip Kurata.


The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, was the receptacle of heavy industrial and agricultural pollution during Soviet times. Fed primarily by the Volga, Russia’s longest river, parts of the Caspian have heavy concentrations of toxic substances such as DDT, heavy metals, PCB’s and dioxins.

Large quantities of toxic waste generated by on-shore and off-shore oil fields, refineries and petrochemical plants have polluted the Caspian shorelines and coastal waters in many areas, most prominently in Baku Bay.

The Caspian sturgeon and the Caspian seal, one of two freshwater species in the world, have been dying in large numbers as a result of polluters or poachers, who have operated with impunity since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

“The sturgeon will be commercially extinct in two to three years,” says a World Bank official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The spike-snouted sturgeon, called a living fossil, dates back 100 million years but its numbers have diminished to the point that the world’s supply of caviar, sturgeon eggs, is threatened. Ninety percent of caviar comes from Caspian sturgeon.

As recently as the mid-1980s, more than 30,000 tons of sturgeon were taken by Soviet and Iranian fishermen. By 1995, the official catch was down to 3,100 tons. The size of the individual fish has declined along with the tonnage of the catches. In the 1970’s, it was not uncommon to catch a 900 pound, 60-year-old beluga sturgeon. Today, the average weight of a caught sturgeon is around 80 pounds.

The decline has resulted primarily from rampant poaching, a rapid increase in pollution-related disease and loss of spawning grounds because of construction of dams on the rivers that feed into the Caspian. Like the salmon, the sturgeon swims from deep water into rivers to spawn. When access to the upstream spawning grounds is blocked, the fish can not reproduce.

A World Bank report says that the great sturgeon has lost nearly 99 percent of its spawning grounds and the Russian sturgeon, 80 percent, because of dam construction. The World Bank has devised the Caspian Environment Project which includes programs, such as building fish channels and artificial spawning grounds, to help the sturgeon survive.

The World Bank says contamination of the Caspian by DDT used in agriculture could be another factor contributing to the disappearance of the sturgeon because it could be a cause of infertility in the fish.

However, the biggest reason for the disappearance of the sturgeon is poaching. Before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Soviet authorities allowed only mature sturgeon to be harvested when they swam upstream to spawn.

“The four newly emerged Caspian independent states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) have failed to agree on the catch of the rare and disappearing species,” says Russian researcher Lidiya Vassilieva. “Probably our grandchildren will only hear fairy tales about caviar.”

Although not facing imminent extinction, Caspian seals have been dying in large numbers in recent years. They numbered about one million in the early 20th century, but by the end of the 1980s the population had shrunk to less than 400,000, the World Bank says.

“Given the continued hunting of pups in the northern ice [of the Caspian in winter], the deliberate killing of seals in Azerbaijan and elsewhere, the low level of fecundity, the apparently grave levels of pesticide pollution, … it seems extremely likely that the population is considerably lower than 10 years ago and highly unstable,” the World Bank reports.

Scientists attached to the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), an 11-nation oil consortium developing Azerbaijan’s offshore wells, have observed seals dying en masse as they migrate between the northern and southern ends of the sea with the seasons.

Analysis of seal tissue has revealed concentrations of the DDT pesticicde of more than 400 mg per gram of blubber in seal pups, an extremely high level. In adults, concentrations of DDT have been found to be as high as 180 mg per gram of blubber, enough to drastically lower fertility and destroy the seals’ immune systems, a World Bank report said.

The Caspian is a self-contained body of water into which the Volga River drains after passing through Russia’s industrial heartland. The Ural, Kura and Emba Rivers also empty contaminants into the Caspian from industrial pollution, agricultural runoff and municipal wastes.

With no outlet to the ocean, pollution has been accumulating on the sea bed and is gradually poisoning the ecosystem, says the Peace and Environment Resource Center (PERC) in Ottawa, Canada.

PERC is critical of the environmental standards adopted by the World Bank and AIOC.

PERC says commitments by investors to use BATNEEC (Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Costs) standards is a clever way of saying that the investors will use whatever environmental protections they find convenient.

“BATNEEC may sound like a scientific or ecologically responsible methodology … but simply it means that project sponsors will provide only those protective measures they are willing to put in place. It represents no standard at all,” PERC said.

PERC also takes issue with World Bank standards to control chronic oil and grease discharges. The enviromental group says the World Bank has unwisely endorsed AIOC’s policy of discharging “produced waters” – oil-tainted water brought up by oil drilling – into the sea in an important spawning ground for sturgeon north of Baku.

The Canadian environmental group says the AIOC should at a minimum commit to re-injecting produced waters back into the geologic foundation below the sea.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation are providing funds for a number of energy projects in the Caspian basin. PERC says those two organizations should use their leverage to press for the application of the highest international environmental standards by the AIOC and other project sponsors in the region.

“The Caspian is an ecosystem under stress. Existing pollution has damaged marine and terrestrial communities. Those pristine areas that remain along the Caspian shoreline – which still harbor important habitat for sturgeon, birds and the Caspian seal – will be placed in further danger by large-scale oil development,” PERC says.

An environmental group in Azerbaijan, ECORES, shares PERC’s concerns. ECORES says the local Azeri population is woefully uneducated about the threats to the environment. An ECORES activist, Shahin Panahov, says a fourth grade Azeri textbook contains a picture of an airplane dusting fields with DDT. The caption on the picture reads, “For the natural goodness of our crops.”

The World Bank says the entry of international oil firms into the Caspian region to exploit the oil and gas reserves holds the prospect for improved environmental protection.

Bank officials reason that the pollution that has been caused in the Caspian was mainly done by local industries during and after the Soviet period.

“We’ve seen international oil companies come in practicing normal environmental operating standards, which are often an improvement over the practices in the host country,” the World Bank official said. “They have methods and equipment and approaches that are industry standard that can help minimize and contain environmental risks at the same time generating income and helping with the overall economic development of the region,” the official said.

Although the standards set by the World Bank and the AIOC may fall short of the demands of PERC, they promise to be a vast improvement on the Soviet “zero tolerance” pollution policy, which allowed officials to collect bribes when the impossibly high standards were routinely broken.

“If we want to have success in protecting the Caspian region, we have to create a situation everyone can live with,” says David Aubrey, coordinator of the Caspian Environment Project. “We won’t get anywhere attempting to ignore the economic imperatives.”

Phillip Kurata is a United States Information Agency staff writer.

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