Environmental groups called for vigorous measures to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Caspian Sea on Wednesday as regional leaders tried to work out how to divide the sea's valuable resources at a landmark two-day summit in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.
"For most countries bordering on the Caspian, environmental considerations come way down their list of priorities," Tim Turner, Programme Coordinator for the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP) told IRIN from the Azerbaijani capital Baku.
Large quantities of toxic waste generated by on-shore and off-shore oil fields, refineries and petrochemical plants have polluted the Caspian shorelines and coastal waters in many areas, most prominently in Baku Bay.
The enormous financial dividends the oil and gas bonanza beneath the Caspian could deliver mean for the five nations at the summit the stakes are high. Serious disagreements on Tuesday and Wednesday in Ashgabat suggested that a final settlement on dividing Caspian energy and other resources remains a long way off. But observers believe that the five nations finally meeting to discuss the issue is progress in itself.
Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are discussing access to what experts say is the world's third-largest oil and gas reserves. The legal status of the Caspian has hung in the balance since the demise of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. During Soviet times Moscow shared the sea with Iran.
Additional claims to the sea came in the early 1990's with the birth of three new Caspian Sea states, all hungry for a slice of the sea's riches. Iran and Turkmenistan now stand together in their demand that the Caspian be divided into five equal parts, while Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan argue that the sea should be divided into national sectors that correspond to the length of their respective coastlines.
But that is not the concern of environmentalists who are watching the summit's progress very closely. Beyond determining who owns what, they want to ensure that all parties commit themselves to a subsequent agreement that will also lead to sound environmental practices.
"Reaching agreement on the Caspian is vital because until that happens there can be no legally-binding environmental framework for the sea," Turner added. He pointed out that currently there was no regional oil spill contingency plan for the Caspian and no way of preventing over fishing.
With no outlet to the ocean, pollution has been accumulating on the sea bed and is gradually poisoning the ecosystem, experts say. Environmentalists are also concerned about the Caspian sturgeon and the Caspian seal. The two freshwater species have been dying in large numbers as a result of polluters or poachers, who have operated with impunity since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
"The sturgeon will be commercially extinct in two to three years," a World Bank official told IRIN from Moscow. The spike-snouted sturgeon dates back 100 million years but its numbers have diminished to the point where the world's supply of caviar, sturgeon eggs, is threatened. Ninety percent of caviar comes from Caspian sturgeon.
The world's largest inland body of water, the Caspian was the receptacle of heavy industrial and agricultural pollution during Soviet times. Fed primarily by the Volga - Russia's longest river - parts of the Caspian have heavy concentrations of toxic substances such as pesticides, heavy metals and dioxins.
"It's the national oil companies with their obsolete rigs and leaking pipes that are the main polluters, but it would cost billions to clean them up," Turner said. Analysts say the best bet for the Caspian could lie in the entry of international oil firms - with their modern, clean operations - into the region. "They would not worsen the pollution problem and could provide the economic development necessary to support regional environmental programmes and enforcement," the World Bank official said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions