By: Tejeshwar Singh Rana, Chief Officer-Merchant Navy & Associate Editor-ICN
The Caspian Sea lies in Eastern Europe, at the border between Europe and Asia. As the largest inland water body on Earth, it has been vital to the economy of the surrounding regions.
With a wealth of marine flora and fauna, the Caspian Sea covers nearly 0.4 million square kilometres of area and has an average depth of over 1 kilometre. It spans 7,000 kilometres of coastline covering 5 different nations on both continents.
Numerous islands dot the Caspian’s surface, and the Sea is 28 m below the mean sea level. The Caspian is considered to be an endorheic basin i.e., it has no primary outflow and retains water.
The primary means of water loss is through the water cycle (evaporation and other natural phenomena) and certain sub-surface geological rifts and depressions. The rivers that provide this inflow to the Caspian Sea are the Volga, the Ural, the Kura, and the Terek.
10 Interesting Facts About the Caspian Sea
In this article, we look at 10 interesting facts on the Caspian Sea. It has immense historical and geographical significance and is considered a major source of energy for the surrounding nations.
6. The Caspian Sea has large oil reserves and several rigs in the region
The countries bordering the Caspian Sea are largely dependent on mineral resources, including oil and gas. This contributes to an estimated 10% of their GDP and around 40% of all exports.These countries have organized the Caspian Economic Forum in 2019 in a bid to strengthen their inter-governmental relations and improve coordinated efforts in diverse fields such as infrastructure, oil & gas, tourism, trade, and
transport. Foremost amongst these nations is Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that have attracted Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) towards their energy sector.
Iran has a large supply of crude oil and is ranked 2nd in the world in terms of reserves. It has an estimated 137.5 billion barrels of crude oil and 988.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Russia is ranked 2nd in the world for oil and natural gas production.
The average output from the Caspian Sea is 1.4 – 1.5 million barrels per day. Of this, Kazakhstan produces 55% and Azerbaijan 20% of the output. Exploration of the seabed and construction of oil wells can be traced back to the late 19th century in the Bibi-Heybat Bay of Azerbaijan.
The oil fields of Baku have produced large supplies of oil, especially while under the erstwhile USSR government. A famous “Contract of the Century” in 1994 led to the setup of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that was used to transport Azeri oil to Ceyhan.
7. World-famous Caviar is farmed from the Caspian Sea
Caviar is an expensive delicacy enjoyed around the world, and the Caspian Sea is a major site of roe farming. So how is caviar made and how does this region produce it? It is the salt-cured roe or eggs of certain fish species including salmon and sturgeon.
Predominantly, caviar refers solely to roe farmed from the Caspian and Black Seas, and the term encompasses different species of fish native to the region. The origins of caviar can be traced back to the 10th century when roe was farmed from the Sea of Azov in Europe.To provide an idea of its retail value, 1 kg of albino sturgeon caviar sells for a staggering $34,500 while wild Beluga sturgeon caviar sells for upwards of $16,000 per kg. The main species of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea that are famed for their caviar are the Persian, Russian, Beluga, sterlet, starry, and bastard varieties.
The beluga sturgeon is a large freshwater fish native to the Caspian.Unfortunately, as roe farming is very lucrative, this has led to overfishing. Caviar farming predominantly targets the reproducing females of the sturgeon species. There have been numerous bans on fishing in the region, but the practice continues illegally.
8. The Caspian Sea is bounded by 5 countries and lies at the junction of 2 continents
Along the vast coastline of the Caspian Sea spanning 7,000 kilometres, 5 nations border it. In the North lies the countries of Russia and Kazakhstan. In the South lies Iran, South East lies Turkmenistan, and South-West lies Azerbaijan.
The longest border is with Kazakhstan at over 1400 km, followed by Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and lastly Iran at 728 km. The countries of Uzbekistan, Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey lie a few hundred kilometres from the Caspian Sea.The capital of Azerbaijan- Baku, lies on the coastline and derives much of its economy from fishing and maritime industries. The Iranian capital of Tehran is roughly 100 km south of the shore. The coastline is dotted with numerous cities, including a large number of naval forts.
Some other major cities on the coastline are as follows:
Makhachkala in Russia, and the cities of Astrakhan and Grozny along rivers that feed on the Caspian Sea.Rasht and Sari in Iran. Turkmenbashi and Balkanabat in Turkmenistan. Atyrau, Aktau, Zhanaozen, and Fort-Shevchenko in Kazakhstan.
Baku, Khachmaz, Sumqayit, and Astara in Azerbaijan. The Caspian Sea lies at the junction of 2 continents- Europe and Asia, close to the Ural mountain ranges that divide both continents.
9. The Caspian Sea is in the middle of a territorial dispute by the bordering nations
As a water body rich in natural resources, there has constantly been minor territorial skirmishes between the bordering 5 nations. Starting in 2000, discussions have been going on regarding the demarcation of the Sea. The main points of contention were the minerals, oil and gas deposits, fishing regions, and connectivity to other water bodies.The landlocked countries bordering the Sea are Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.
To connect with other nations through the Black and Baltic Seas, they are dependent on free passage through rivers in Russia, namely the Volga.However, if free access is provided, then Russia’s main trading route will suffer from congestion and vessel inaccessibility to ports. This has been a major point of discussion in the ongoing summits.
The current demarcation has divided the Sea into 2 zones- the Iran region and the Soviet region. Of these, the Soviet region comprises Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Despite the division, non- mineral resources such as fish were equally shared by the nations.
However, mineral resources including oil and gas reserves had to be demarcated to prevent tensions over excess mining. The main conflicts are between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Azerbaijani research vessels claim to have come under fire from both parties during routine expeditions.
Iran has made repeated claims of illegal incursions, while Turkmenistan alleges that Azerbaijan has pumped more than the agreed share of oil from a common subsea deposit. For this reason, all 5 nations have naval fleets active in the region to safeguard their national interests.
Iran has proposed the solution of an equal 1/5th share to each nation, but it has been largely rejected since Iran has the smallest coastline but will receive an unduly large share of the resources.
10. Legally, the Caspian Sea is neither a sea nor a lake
Most water bodies today have been classified into one of the broad groups- oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, streams, and pools (further classified into above the ground, underground, etc.). However, the Caspian Sea is unique as it has never been successfully classified. Even as recent as 2018, an inter-governmental effort to determine its status yielded no results. So why the confusion? A lake is a body of water that does not feed into an ocean and is generally landlocked on most of its boundaries. The Caspian Sea fits that description, since it is not connected to any ocean (the nearest being several hundreds of kilometres away) and is predominantly landlocked barring a few rivers flowing into it.
At the same time, a sea is a large body of water in surface area and depth, but not as big as an ocean. And the Caspian Sea suits these descriptors as well since it is an extremely large body of water covering 371,000 square kilometres with an average depth of 211 meters and a maximum depth of over 1 kilometre.So, what is the implication of not being categorized as either a sea or a lake? In the previous section, we had outlined how the landlocked countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan are dependent on free passage through
the Volga for trade to other countries.
By legal precedent, a Sea cannot be claimed by any single nation, and any country’s fleet is free to use it within limitations set by the UN or IMO. However, a lake can be claimed by a single or group of nations, and passage is not necessarily available to all. This led to a territorial dispute since the Caspian hasn’t been demarcated, making it a unique case.
Furthermore, the exact division of resources has come under scrutiny, given that some nations have a longer coastline on the Sea compared to others. While there seems to be no end in sight to this dilemma, the discussions have been largely peaceful with a plan to achieve a solution within the next few years.