The Caspian Sea, surrounded by the five coastal countries of Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation and Turkmenistan, is the largest land-locked body of water on earth. Situated in a natural depression, below mean sea level, it receives water from the Volga, Ural and the Kura rivers and numerous other freshwater inputs, but has no outlet to the world's oceans. The Volga River, the largest in Europe, is the source of 80% of the Caspian's freshwater inflow. The isolation of the Caspian basin together with its climatic and salinity gradients have created a unique ecological system with an impressive number of species endemic to the Caspian waters. Among the most famous are the Caspian sturgeon and the very rare fresh water seal.
What are the main environmental concerns in the region?
Booming exploitation of oil and gas resources, growing networks of pipelines and transport routes, industrial pollution from inflowing rivers and ground water, sea-level fluctuations, climate change and coastal desertification, and in particular the loss of biodiversity due to overexploitation of fish stocks and the introduction of invasive alien species – these are just some of the many environmental challenges that the Caspian Sea is facing. Since most of the problems are transboundary in nature, these challenges require cooperation between all Caspian states.
The Caspian region is also home to around 15 million people, who, to a large extent depend on the natural riches of the Caspian Sea. Therefore, protecting the Caspian environment is not only a matter of protection for the environment's own sake, but is also a prerequisite for reducing health risks for the coastal population and for fostering sustainable economic development.
How is UNEP helping address these challenges?
The Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the Tehran Convention, aims at protecting the Caspian Sea from pollution and at safeguarding its biological resources for present and future generations. Adopted and signed in 2003, it entered into force in August 2006. The Convention is the first regional legally binding agreement signed and ratified by all the five Caspian littoral states.
The Tehran Convention addresses all specific threats to the Caspian environment and notably calls the Caspian states to cooperate to prevent pollution and protect the marine environment as well as to support the countries and their population in securing a sustainable future. UNEP provides interim secretariat services to the Tehran Convention and assists Parties to the Convention with negotiating and developing related protocols.
In the framework of the Convention, four ancillary Protocols have been developed on the thematic priority areas of environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context, protection against pollution from land-based sources and activities, conservation of biological diversity and preparedness and joint response towards oil spill incidents.
As the first out of the four, the Aktau Protocol on Regional Preparedness, Response and Cooperation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents was adopted and signed by the Caspian littoral States at COP3 in Aktau, Kazakhstan in August 2011. The other three Protocols are close to being finalized and are expected to be adopted and signed at COP4 in Russian Federation.
Following the adoption of a Regional Strategic Convention Action Plan at COP2, National Convention Action Plans with embedded National Public Participation Strategies have been developed in all Caspian littoral States. These plans anticipate the implementation of the four Protocols and together with a proposal for an environmental monitoring programme, they will be ready for adoption before or by COP4.
The establishment of a web-based Caspian Information Centre (CIC), able to host and distribute information on the state of the Caspian Sea environment and to organize the involvement of civil society, is also underway. The first Caspian Sea State of the Environment Report prepared by UNEP/GRID-Arendal in 2011 is available on the website of the Tehran Convention.