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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

29 August 2006

New treaty on conservation and sustainable development of Caspian Sea enters into force

By Michael Williams, UNEP/DEC

The Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea – the first legally binding agreement on any subject to be adopted by the five Caspian neighbours – entered into force on 12 August 2006.

The Convention will coordinate efforts by the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan to reverse an environmental crisis brought about by habitat destruction, industrial pollution, the over-exploitation of fish and other marine life, climate extremes and economic and political challenges. 

With an area of some 370,886 sq km (143,200 sq mi), the mildly salty Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake. It is fed by some 130 tributary rivers, most importantly the Volga River, which alone accounts for 75% of the total inflow. As a result of the region’s current boom in oil and gas exploration, the Caspian is now criss-crossed by a growing network of oil and gas pipelines and transport routes. Nevertheless, it has great potential for eco-tourism and for sustainable fisheries and agriculture.

Also known as the Tehran Convention after the city where it was adopted, the new treaty commits its member governments to prevent and reduce pollution, restore the environment, use the Sea’s resources in a sustainable and reasonable manner, and cooperate with one another and with international organizations to protect the environment.

More specifically, 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 particular challenge will be to address the potential consequences of the recent growth in oil and gas production. In 2004, regional oil production reached roughly 1.9 million barrels per day, and other oil supplies transit the region via ship and pipeline. The Parties to the Convention 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 boasts some 400 endemic (unique) species. The best-known example of the over-exploitation of these biological resources is the dramatic decline of the sturgeon fisheries and the current halt in caviar exports under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Habitat destruction is also a major threat. For example, the building of numerous dams and hydroelectric plants on the Volga has fragmented habitats and harmed many vulnerable species. Meanwhile, now that ships can enter the Caspian from the world’s seas 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 both the precautionary principle and the best available scientific evidence, the five governments are to improve coastal management systems and
protect, preserve and restore the Caspian’s marine living resources and use them in a rational manner.

Address the problem of fluctuating water levels. For reasons that are not yet fully understood (factors could include tectonic shifts, climate variations, sedimentation and human actions), the Caspian Sea’s surface level fluctuates over time. From 1880 to 1977 the sea dropped four metres. A sudden reversal in 1977 caught people by surprise, inundating coastal areas and causing billions of dollars in damage. 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. Recognizing the wide range of potential hazards that could suddenly threaten the people and natural environment of the Caspian Sea, the Convention commits its members to cooperate on protecting human beings and the marine environment against the consequences of natural or man-made 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. To this end they will also strengthen and support the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), which has a fundamental role to play in the Convention’s implementation. The participating governments established the CEP 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 now 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 will likely be held in early 2007.

Key web sites:

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

“Vital Caspian Graphics” with maps and other environmental information can be found at http://www.grida.no/products.cfm?pageID=12.

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