The Analytical Group of AzVision.az

Fluctuations that cost the Earth

// Declining water levels in the Caspian Sea poses new challenges to the littoral states

T

he Caspian Sea has been experiencing sea-level fluctuations for millions of years. In ancient times, water-level changes did not bother the coastal tribes. Today, the situation is completely different. If left unaddressed, this problem will pose significant environmental, economic, and social threats for the Caspian region and will have many other far-reaching consequences. The faster the change in sea level occurs, the more severe its consequences. This is affecting different sectors of countries’ economies such as fisheries, transport, and the construction sector, including people working in these sectors and those living in the urban areas. 


Scary predictions 

A recent study by German and Dutch researchers, published in the Nature Communications Earth & Environment journal,  has set off alarm bells with its projection of an unprecedented drop in water level. The study predicts that, due to increased evaporation rates, largely driven by greenhouse gas-induced climate change, water levels in the Caspian Sea will drop by 9 to 18 meters by the end of the twenty-first century. Overall, the Caspian Sea’s surface area will shrink by 23% for a 9 m and by 34% for an 18 m drop in sea level. In addition, the Kara-Bogaz-Gol Bay on the eastern margin will be completely desiccated.

By Western scientists' estimates, Caspian water levels could drop by 9 to 18 meters (30 to 59 feet) by the end of the 21st century, enough that it would lose about a quarter of its area and uncover about 93,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) of dry land.

A 2018 study published in Nature journal by a group of NASA researchers described the conditions of the Caspian Sea as follows: “Due to direct water abstraction from rivers feeding the Caspian Sea, the sea is now in a similar condition as the Aral Sea. The Caspian Sea has 78,000 gigatons of water and will survive for another 3,000 years if the decent continues, although there is still a risk of the sea retreating.”


Scientists of Iran’s Center for Caspian Sea Studies and Research also predict that the water level of the Caspian Sea will continue to drop in the next 25 years. 


In this regard, Deputy of Marine Environment at the Iranian Department of Environment, Ahmadreza Lahijanzadeh said“The level of the Caspian Sea in the last hundreds of years hit its lowest in 1979 and highest in 1995. After that, from 1995 to 2010, the observed trend for the sea was almost constant. After 2010, we are witnessing a decreasing trend in the sea-level.”


If these frightening forecasts come true, it is not difficult to imagine what environmental, economic, and political problems the Caspian littoral states will face. 

Chingiz Ismayilov, the Professor, Head of the Department of Economic and Social Geography at Baku State University, Doctor of Geographical Sciences, spoke to the AzVision.az about the problems that may arise in case of a sharp decline in the water level of the Caspian Sea. 

Chingiz Ismayilov: "By the results of 180 years of calculations, we have determined that sea-level equivalent is 3 meters"

The professor named three main factors that force the Caspian Sea to shrink: solar activity, plate tectonics, and anthropogenic activities. It is impossible to do anything related to the first two factors. We can only adapt to them. We will talk about the anthropogenic impact separately, but first, let us see if natural factors promise a terrible future?


Doomsday or fairy tale? 


Speaking to AzVision.az, experts from three countries shared common views, ruling out the reliability of predictions for 70-80 years later. What is told on this issue is more like a fairy tale. 


Petr Bukharitsin, Professor, Doctor of Geographical Sciences and Senior Researcher of the Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences, says, predicting a long-range prognosis is not physically possible. We can only talk about various models. No one can guarantee its reliability.


As for the predictions of European scientists, published in the Nature journal, Bukharitsin said, relying on the trendy model of global warming, the scientists gave disappointing forecasts. They calculated only the climate data on the role of Atlantic cyclones that bring large amounts of water to the European part of Russia and did not take into account other important factors.


“Some other important factors also influence the water content of the Volga and different rivers of the Caspian basin, and, respectively, the water level of the Caspian Sea. These are the southern, Mediterranean, Black Sea cyclones, and the Caspian Sea itself. They increase humidity. In comparison with Atlantic cyclones, they highly affect the water level of the rivers flowing into the Caspian Sea,” the professor added. 

Peter Bukharitsin: "İt is unreal to predict what would happen after 80 years"

   

 In her statement to AzVision.azNatalia Ivkina, Head of the Hydrometeorological Research Department of the Caspian Sea at the Kazhydromet Republican State Enterprise, Expert of the WMO technical commissions on marine oceanography, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Hydrometeorology and Ecology journal, Candidate of Geographical Sciences, said they conducted a study on the impact of climate change on the components of the water balance and the water level of the Caspian Sea. According to their conclusions, currently, the water level of the Caspian Sea shows a steady downward trend. This decline will be particularly noticeable in the second third of the 21st century.


"Since 2006, the Caspian Sea has been experiencing a decline in its water level. In 2021, its level was - 28.42 m of the Baltic System (BS), and in December 2021, the level reached 28.55 m (BS). For the period from 2005 to 2021, the fall in the background water level was 1.51 m. Moreover, the intensity of fall in water levels over the past year was 18 cm. During this period, the sea surface area was 23,000 square kilometers, half of which falls on the Kazakh part of the North Caspian Sea,” Ivkina added. 

It is already possible to observe how the water is receding in the Caspian Sea. This is more visible on the coast of Kazakhstan


Ivkina's predictions, to a certain extent, coincide with the forecasts of Azerbaijani scientist Amir Aliyev, Head of the Department of the Institute of Geography at the National Academy of Sciences. 


The Azerbaijani scientist predicts that the surface area of the world's largest lake could shrink by 3 meters by 2050. However, the water level will begin to rise again in about 30 years. The professor emphasized that these predictions are based on archaeological excavations and other scientific research.


Common ground 


An interesting situation arises: while Western scientists seem to be pessimistic about the future of the Caspian Sea and put forward frightening scenarios, experts from the littoral states stay optimistic. So where is the truth?


- There are many speculations about the level of the Caspian Sea. However, scientists in this field believe that it is impossible to make long-term predictions about the change in the sea level. Such predictions were made previously but they were not fully validated. Scholars find that different databases are offering different results, - head of the subdivision of Environmental Protection Policy of the Ministry of the Ecology and Natural Resources Rasim Sattarzadeh told AzVision.az


Generalizing all the opinions, one can say, although scientists and officials do not take long-term predictions and ‘catastrophic scenarios’ seriously, they agree that the decline at the Caspian sea is a fact, and this process may continue until the middle of the century. Until then, the sea level may drop to about 3 m. It is enough for further grave economic and social problems. 


Ports without vessels 


From the economist's point of view, primarily, the sea is a port. Along with its heavily invested complex port infrastructure, the Caspian Sea is becoming an essential link in the East-West and North-South corridors. Huge investments are being made in Alat, Makhachkala, Olya, Astrakhan, Aktau, Kuryk, Turkmenbashi, and Anzali ports to help them operate more efficiently and cope with the expected congestion in these corridors soon. However… the Caspian will not disrupt these plans, will it? 


-Water level drop of the Caspian Sea will seriously affect maritime transportation. In coastal regions, due to excessive water withdrawals, the appearance of underwater rocks poses challenges such as navigation problems. Ports become unapproachable. The East-West corridor falls under suspicion, - expert on transport infrastructure  Yasin Mustafayev told AzVision.az while speaking about the validity issues in research.

The problem can be seen obviously in Kazakhstan. “A vivid example of this is the situation with the operation of the Kashagan offshore field. The water level in this part of the Caspian Sea has dropped by more than a meter since 2005. That may lead to problems with navigation in the field area by 2025. To avoid nuisance, it is proposed to dig two channels with a total length of 56 kilometers,” Lydia Parkhomchik, a Kazakh scholar at the Institute of the World Economy and Politics told AzVision.az. 


The expert noted that Shipping in the North Caspian would face problems directly affecting the North-South International Transport Corridor. 

Lydia Parkhomchik: “Sea-level fluctuations directly affect the organization of the economic structure of the Caspian region. Therefore, a sharp decline or increase in the water level of the Caspian Sea can inflict significant damage on the economies of the littoral states. 

Access to port facilities in the ports of Olya and Astrakhan, and the subsequent movement along the Volga-Don Canal, may be limited. Lowering sea level in the southern part will also affect the operation of Iranian ports, although to a lesser extent. Eventually, forecasts that the potential of container traffic along the North-South ITC routes could reach 662 thousand TEU by 2030 will fail. 

The drop in the sea level becomes ground for size reduction of vessels approaching the ports. In other words, deep-water gross-tonnage ships cannot get closer to the harbors. Undoubtedly, it affects cargo turnover. 

As the water level drops, the size and capacity of vessels approaching ports also decrease. 

The Port of Alat, located at the intersection of the East-West and North-South corridors, is considered the largest and most important port on the Caspian coast. The location allows the port to fulfill its goals, to play a significant role in regional and global supply chains as a hub where the key railway and trunk networks of Azerbaijan converge. At the first stage, the port will handle a throughput of 10 million tons of cargo and 50,000 containers per year. However, if the water continues to withdraw, is there Plan B to reach these goals? 

The decrease in the water level in the Caspian Sea could not have prevented the Port of Baku from operating as usual: “The current depth in the basin of the Port of Baku (Alat Port)- one of the most modern and deep ports of the Caspian Sea - fully corresponds to the navigation rules in the sea, Elmar Habibli, a spokesperson for the Baku International Sea Trade Port CJSC told AzVision.az 

Currently, there is no obstacle to the movement of big vessels into the port. In the port of Baku, using the most modern instruments the water depth is regularly measured, appropriate works are carried out. Dredging may be carried out in case the decrease in the water level causes any problems. However, today there is no such problem.” 

There are no problems in Alat port yet. However, if it is necessary, the bottom of the port can be deepened in the future. 

Experts say, in case of a dramatic drop in sea level, canal shipping offering alternative routes would be the best choice. However, it will not be enough for any port to do it separately. If the port operators implement quick reforms relevant to the situation, they may avoid the problem. Otherwise, orderers will look for other ports. 

Between fire and water 


To imagine the possible social and economic damages caused by water-level fluctuations, one should look back in history. Due to a 2.5 m rise in sea level in 1977-1995, an estimated 50,000 hectares of land only in Azerbaijan were affected by floods, resulting in an additional $ 2 billion in damages to the state budget. The Caspian littoral countries lost $10 within just five years because of coastal flooding. Because of sea-level drop over the past 20 years, the floods in those areas have faded away. However, the soil is affected by a high concentration of salts limiting the productivity of crop plants. Efficient resource management can help to overcome salinity stress. However, such a strategy is long-drawn and cost-intensive. 


Of course, fishing will suffer the most. With a decrease in the Caspian Sea level, the fields for raising fodder for the fish stocks in the northern Caspian were significantly reduced. Due to the decrease, some areas, especially, the lands 10-20 km on the northern shelf will surface again. The highest decrease on the Azerbaijani side will be observed in the upper part of the Absheron Peninsula and Sumgayit city. Approximately 100 m of the area will surface again. The consequences of water withdrawal will be observed in the southern regions of Azerbaijan, such as Neftchala, Kura River, and Astara. It is a grave challenge for fisheries to adapt to the new shifts.


The tourism industry is also facing difficult days. The beach areas will change and the sea will be much further. It means that the infrastructure on the coast is in disrepair.

The water is receding in the sea, the infrastructure remains. The maritime tourism sector will face difficulties...

By one estimation, about 80 million people could benefit from maintaining the optimal water level in the Caspian Sea. In this regard, the socio-economic significance of the Caspian Sea is much greater than that of the Aral and Dead Seas, where water levels have dropped significantly. As the livelihoods and food security of millions of people depend on the Caspian Sea, the loss of ecosystem services will have dire socio-economic consequences and harm the economies of the entire region.

It's not just about the coastal states. The drop in sea level will harm the Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian economies as winter monsoon winds carry the sufficient moisture of the Caspian Sea towards the basins of the rivers flowing from these countries. The drop in water levels in the Caspian Sea will reduce the amount of evaporation, resulting in a shortage of drinking water in the Middle East.

Water withdrawal can also generate political challenges as the sea is divided by a midline. In addition, some oil and gas fields are found right next to the midline. The extension of the coastline back into the sea will lead to the relocation of the line. In its turn, it will create a need to redefine the boundaries and the affiliation of the hydrocarbon deposits.


Humans and the sea


Almost all of the experts interviewed by AzVision call sea-level fluctuations "a natural process". The impact of the human factor occurs in the short term in local areas but does not change the general trend. As humans are not the cause of this process, they cannot prevent it and, in general, they should try not to interfere. Human intervention can upset the balance of nature existing for millions of years and cause complications.


“There is no option to regulate the water level of the Caspian Sea. You can only try to close the strait connecting Karabogazgol Gulf with the Caspian Sea", said Mikhail Bolgovhead of the Laboratory of Surface Water Modeling at the Institute of Water Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Technical Sciences, and Deputy Chairman of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Program. In this situation, a person can and must act in two main directions.


Firstly, a flexible system must be put into practice to ensure that all maritime economies adapt to new realities. Everyone, including ports, fisheries, and hotels, should develop a "Plan B" answering the question "what will we do if the sea level drops by 1-3 meters tomorrow" and mobilize resources for its implementation. In the case of joint action, the littoral states need to combine efforts. It will harm everyone. All the experts who spoke to AzVision agreed on this issue as well: 5 states should establish a Joint Center to monitor the state of the sea. The center must also have the resources and authority to take the necessary measures at a critical moment.


Secondly, sea-level drop exacerbates the environmental issues. The consequences of the sea level withdrawal become severer with man-made hazards. Therefore, it is necessary to take joint steps on marine ecological issues. In particular, the pollution of rivers flowing into the Caspian Sea has gone beyond the critical level.

The European Union has adopted many documents on the pollution of Transboundary Rivers. However, Armenia and Georgia, all of whose internal rivers flow into the Caspian Basin refuse to join the agreements for the protection of Transboundary Rivers. It means that the Caspian Sea is not polluted only with domestic but also with more hazardous industrial waste. For instance, harmful substances dumped by the Zangazur copper-molybdenum mine in southern Armenia into the Okhchuchai, crossing the Araz and the Kura, increase the toxicity of the Caspian Sea. As the Caspian Sea has a unique, valuable fauna, all littoral states should be involved in its protection.

Toxic waste dumped by Armenia into Okhchuchay River will have a more adverse impact on the ecological system of the declining Caspian Sea

In November 2003, the Caspian littoral states signed the Framework Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea in Tehran. Azerbaijan ratified the document in April 2006. Although four protocols have been signed in this direction so far, all parties have ratified only one of them.

“The Protocol on Regional Preparedness, Response, and Cooperation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents to the Framework Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea has already entered into force. The Conventions on Environmental Impact Assessment in the Transboundary Context and the Biodiversity Protection have also been concluded. The documents have not entered into force yet, as they have not been ratified by all parties," Faig Mutallimov, head of the Environmental Policy Department of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, told AzVision stressing the significance of the Convention as the first legal document on the protection of the environment of the Caspian Sea after the fall of the Soviet Union


The parties to the Convention are developing procedures to implement the provisions of the Protocols. If any of the principles of the protocols are violated, or the marine environment is harmed, the perpetrator will be subject to appropriate sanctions.

Epilogue


... Undoubtedly, the most beautiful work on the relationship between man and the sea is “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway. The old fisherman in the novel described the sea as a woman who cares a lot when she wants to and turns away when treated badly. The old man also kept saying that a man was not created to be defeated. His greatest advice was: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” This advice will be very useful for the future of the Caspian Sea in the coming years. Now is the time to think about how to make the most of the opportunities available!

  15 February 2022    Read: 1425    Can be read: 29 min.

29 min.