Caspian Sea: how the world’s biggest lake is drying up
The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland lake. Today, Caspian Sea’s problems still fall deaf on ears.
More than 100 million people in five states—Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan—rely on the rivers leading to the Caspian Sea. In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, cross-border competition for water, tied with rapidly hastening climate change, has made a poor situation worse.
According to a report published in Nature magazine, by the end of the century the Caspian Sea will drop at least nine metres to 18 metres. Under this scenario, the lake will lose at least 25% of its former size, uncovering 93,000 sq km of dry land. If that new land were a country, it would be an area the size of Hungary.
A continuous and rapid decline in the Caspian Sea level started in 1996, ongoing up to the present day.
Around 85 percent of the water flowing into the Caspian Sea comes from the Volga River, and now, too much water abstraction from the river has left a direct effect on the reduction of the Caspian Sea’s level. Volga, which is also Europe’s largest river, runs through 20 major Russian cities, including Moscow, and there are 11 dams built along this path. The amount of water extracted from the river has notably grown year by year since the end of the last century, which also affects the level of the Caspian Sea to decrease.
The imminent Caspian Sea level decline is threatening shipping traffic inside and outside the lake, which is linked to the World Ocean by the Volga-Baltic Waterway and the Volga-Don Canal.
Dried riverbed, dead fish lying on bare stones – that is today’s picture of Liman, the small harbour town on the southern coast of Azerbaijan. What remain are piers that lead nowhere, the rusting carcasses of boats half-buried in the silt, and white, barren scenes of exposed salt flats.
Today, fishermen in Liman – which is slowly reducing in population – mostly Caspian white fish, bream, pike and sturgeon, the latter often exported.
“We are losing our hope for the future”, says Mehman Guliyev, a 55-year-old fisherman from Liman.
“In the winter, sometimes we will catch about 200 manat worth of kutum (Caspian white fish) per person” in a single catch, explains Guliyev. “Now, we are struggling even to get half of it and as a result, most of us became taxi drivers.”
The situation especially going to affect Kazakhstan, the most vulnerable country, since it has no control on river flows to the Caspian, and coastal regions of the country will be greatly affected by potential desiccation.
In recent environmental disasters in the region, such as Aral Sea and Urmia Lake, the water level decline is due to unsustainable use of water resources caused a lot of public outcry.
The exposed seabed affected by strong winds could cause more dust storms in the region. Studies have linked sustained exposure to this dust to an increase in respiratory diseases in people living nearby.
The challenges involved in restoring and protecting the Caspian Sea’s resources are significant. Given the extensive socio-economic effects, and impacts on human health that may extend beyond borders of five Caspian states, the lake’s bleak outlook requires vigorous involvement of international organizations that can provide expertise and financial resources.
A coordinated effort among the countries in the Caspian Sea is crucial for the implementation of a combined watershed management approach to better understand hydroclimatic changes in the lake, so that improvements could be made to models for better projections of the Caspian Sea level and area.
Policymakers need to mitigate by increasing public awareness about water scarcity, mismanagement and waste may pave the way for re-establishing a balance between natural water supply and water demand.
The Caspian Sea’s shrinkage is not just a tragedy, as many people have said, it is an active hazard unfolding before our eyes. But nature does not make such errors. Human fallacy, on the other hand, knows no boundaries—a lesson that the barren area that once held a great lake should always bring to mind.
Image credit: Nature magazine