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.
What has UNEP done to help tackle the issues in the region?
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 on 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.
Between January and December 2010, eleven meetings were organised by the interim secretariat. Related achievements include the finalisation of two protocols to the Convention, which have passed national approval procedures and are ready for adoption and signature (1. Regional Preparedness, Response and Cooperation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents; 2. Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context). Two additional protocols are nearly finalized: 1. Conservation of Biological Diversity and 2. Against Land-Based Sources of Pollution. A Unified Reporting Format and the Caspian Regional Public Participation Strategy were also finalized and will be adopted at the Third Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to take place in 2011.