Many countries around the world are now threatened by rising sea levels in coastal areas as a result of climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps. Russia is experiencing such a scenario in the Arctic. But it is also facing another serious consequence of climate change as far as its coastal areas are concerned: Scientists predict that if temperatures continue to rise at the same level as now, the Russian portion of the Caspian Sea will completely dry up before the end of this century—especially if there is no agreement among littoral states about how to address this problem.
But even before the sea disappears, Russian experts say, the coastline of the Caspian is already rapidly receding, threatening not only Moscow’s ability to trade with other littoral states but also calling into question Russia’s ability to project military power in that body of water. Until now, the Russian government had counted on its access to the Caspian as a useful tool to block Central Asia’s links with the West via Azerbaijan and to put pressure on Iran. As a result, some Russian analysts are now arguing that Moscow must massively intervene to deal with the receding shoreline, efforts that are certain to be difficult and expensive and that past experience suggests may be beyond its capacity to deal (Vzglyad, September 14).
The initial alarm was triggered by an article prepared by American, Russian, French and Azerbaijani scholars in the US journal, Geophysical Research Letters, earlier this year. Their paper pointedly warns that “the Russian segment of the Caspian Sea may entirely dry up within 75 years (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 30; Agu.org, August 29).
Mikhail Kuvyrko of Moscow’s Vzglyad newspaper has surveyed leading Russian experts—including Vasily Cherkashin, the head of the Dagestani Institute of Geology, Nukhkadi Rabazanov, of the Caspian Institute for Biological Resources, and Dagestani geologist Idris Idrisov—for their assessments of how likely this development is, what it will mean for Russia economically and geopolitically, and perhaps most important what the Russian government needs to do immediately in order to prevent disaster (Vzglyad, September 14).
The Russian scholars are somewhat less alarmist than their foreign counterparts, pointing out that the sea level of the Caspian fell between 1929 and 1977, rose again between 1978 and 1995, and was relatively stable between 1996 and 2009. But they agree that since 2010, the level of the sea has fallen sharply, although it cannot be excluded, they suggest, that this is a short-term trend and will be reversed. If so, there will not be a catastrophe. But if the sea level continues to drop—either as a result of climate change or due to declines in the amount of water flowing into the sea because ever more is diverted to other uses—the results could be ruinous, the experts say.
The current drying up of the sea is already leading to rapidly receding shorelines, something that has an impact on residents, industry, shipping and fishing. Many ports built when the water level was higher are now far inland, much as happened with those on the Aral Sea a half century ago. Worse, all of the construction in the area has to be moved or abandoned and the impact of sewage and industrial waste on the Caspian and its biological resources is ever greater as the water level declines and the concentration of harmful substances in the water supply increases. Indeed, these can spell not only death for the fishing industry there but also become the cause of the spread of disease.
What should be obvious but apparently is not, the Russian experts say, is that the drying up of the Caspian and coping with the consequences that are already making themselves felt will be possible only if all the littoral states agree to do something about it. But at present, they point out, there is no accord on the seriousness of the problem or what to do about it. As a result, even if Russia takes steps to slow the process, the unwillingness or failure of others to do the same thing will make it impossible for Moscow to achieve much progress.
Consensus is needed as to the amount of water each littoral state allows to flow into the sea from rivers on its territory, the experts interviewed by Vzglyad say; and there must be additional agreement on sewage and industrial waste. But at present, they point out, “there is no single approach to the preservation of the eco-system of the Caspian” among the littoral states. As a result, Russian interests are going to suffer in the coming decades.
This discussion suggests three things: First, officials in Moscow are worried about the fate of the Caspian for economic and security reasons but are unsure how to proceed given budgetary stringencies. They are, therefore, prepared both to deny the extent of the threat and to blame other littoral states. Second, these same officials are likely to demand that the Russian government put new pressure on the other countries situated along the Caspian coast—Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. And third, the aforementioned academic report about the looming effects of climate change for the Caspian basin is likely to have serious political consequences even if the states involved cannot agree on what to do.