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Turkmenistan backs away from landmark Caspian agreement

[Asia] Oil development on the Caspian Sea
Caspian Environment Programme
Progress has been made in reaching an international agreement on protecting the polluted Caspian Sea
Turkmenistan has failed to sign a landmark treaty designed to protect the fragile environment of the Caspian Sea, which means that the ground-breaking agreement is not legally binding. Ministers from Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation all signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea at a ceremony in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Tuesday. In the case of Turkmenistan, however, its vice minister of nature protection, Makhtumkulu Akmuradov, after giving a short speech on the importance of the environmental stability of the Caspian Sea, simply returned to his seat. It appeared Turkmenistan's reluctance to sign had more to do with bureaucratic procedures rather than issues on which it was at odds with the Convention. Delegates and members of international organisations present were quick to point out that Turkmenistan's non-signing would not stall the Convention. Ma'sumeh Ebtekar, the head of the Department of the Environment in Iran, announced that Turkmenistan had been granted one year to join the other member countries in signing. "There is a sense that Turkmenistan would like to modify certain conditions in the Convention, but the Turkmen government is working on environmental issues, it has an environmental plan and certainly didn't seem to be disassociating itself form the work that will be going on," Frederick Lyons, the UN resident coordinator and UN Development Programme resident representative in Iran, told IRIN. "The signing of the treaty means we can move to the next stage, work can proceed - this is very important. As of tomorrow, the steering committee of the programme will be meeting and will be continuing to move forward on its work programme," he added. It has taken nearly eight years for the five countries to reach an agreement. Part of the reason it has taken so long is because many of the littoral countries are new, young countries, inexperienced in international political dialogue. The Caspian Sea is the largest saltwater lake in the world and is also home to one of the world's richest oil reserves. Not surprisingly therefore, it is a political hot potato, so the signing of the agreement in Tehran was a major step forward in diplomatic relations, regardless of Turkmenistan's failure to sign. This is the first treaty on any subject to be potentially adopted by the five neighbours. "These countries did not trust each other in the past. The issue of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea has always been there in the background, and the fact that Turkmenistan did not sign today is still a reflection of that concern, because some countries think that a convention - even an environmental convention - might have implications for the legal regime. But having said that, I am sure that they will sign," Hamid Ghaffarzadeh, the programme coordinator for the Caspian Environment Programme, the umbrella organisation for the five littoral countries and the international agencies, told IRIN, The treaty, negotiated under the auspices of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and financially supported by the UN, the EU and the World Bank, aims to reverse ecological and environmental damage in the Caspian Sea area caused by industrial pollution, sewage and leaks from oil refineries. The sea also suffers from uncontrolled fishing of the caviar-producing sturgeon, the over-exploitation of marine resources, and the destruction of the region's biological diversity, which includes some 400 species unique to the Caspian. Its water levels are currently rising, which is threatening coastal communities and ecosystems. Many environmental agencies believe that the Convention is too little too late, and that more needs to be done to help the Caspian area, which has been ravaged by pollution and overfishing. "We need environmental training for our members and for the people who live around the Caspian. We also need financial aid for our activities, " Dariush Alimi, Director of the Biosphere Research Association, an environmental NGO based in the Caspian Sea region, told IRIN. The UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNEP stressed that the signing of the Convention was only the first step towards tackling this environmental disaster. "You need separate protocols and separate agreements on the various aspects, because there are many problems, and ideally there should be separate protocols which will stipulate the responsibilities and obligations of the countries of the region," he told IRIN. In a speech read by Ebtekar, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami outlined the importance to Iran of the signing of the Convention. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the most vulnerable littoral state due to water circulation towards the Iranian coastal areas and reliance of its local people on Caspian reserves. These problems have prompted the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to draft and implement a number of environmental policies in the context of National Development Plans." Even when all five countries have signed the treaty, it must then be ratified by each member government - and this may take a couple of years.

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

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