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Aral, Caspian Seas Remain Under Ecological Threat

The Soviet Union was home to two of the world's largest inland bodies of water, the Aral and Caspian Seas.  Once offering up abundant examples of nature's grace, both seas are now dying.  In the case of the Aral Sea, the cause is agricultural mismanagement, while in the Caspian it is pollution and oil development.  There are mixed views on whether the seas can be saved.

The rare and highly prized sturgeon fish has lived and mated in the ink black waters of the Caspian Sea for decades.

In Soviet times, bans were in place to protect overfishing and prevent pollution.  But in the 1990s those bans were lifted and the fish that is the source of the world's finest and most expensive caviar is now reported on the verge of extinction.

Scientists say the ongoing loss of the sturgeon is one side effect of irresponsible oil pollution and waste disposal, as well as overfishing in the present.  Additionally, the new Caspian Sea oil rush and planned underwater oil and gas pipelines is only contributing to the problem.

With the Caspian's water levels rising rapidly, up to two meters in the past several years, coastal regions have been flooded and polluted, especially in Kazakhstan.  If the problem continues at its current rate, the other nations whose shores the Caspian touches could be affected.  They are Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

But from catastrophe comes hope in the form of the international non-governmental group, NGO, known as Crude Accountability.  They are just one of the hundreds of NGOs founded to help preserve and protect the Caspian Sea.

The North Caspian coordinator for the Moscow branch of Crude Accountability, Aleksey Knizhnikov, says his group has two immediate goals: to restore the Caspian Sea by making oil companies more responsible, and to slow or even halt further oil drilling and exploration, until the sea can be nursed back to health.

"One of the problems is that there is no regional standard and work plans to combat oil spills so now as soon as [the] framework convention to protect marine ecosystems of [the] Caspian Sea was signed by all countries, we think it will allow all five countries urgently to create regional oil spill prevention plan and this should definitely be the first step before any further development of oil and gas in the region," said Mr. Knizhnikov.

The governments of the five Caspian states signed the agreement to which Mr. Knizhnikov refers in November, 2003.  The convention aims to protect the sea as both an environmental and economic resource.

Baftiar Muradov, with the Caspian Environment Program, an NGO in Baku, says he takes heart with recent improvements in Azerbaijan's economy, which he says have enabled the country to set aside more money to save the Caspian.

Mr. Muradov says international organizations like the World Bank have also assigned grants to locals in order to help them establish their own businesses and abandon fishing activities.

But both activists say more time, money and effort will be needed before the long-term fate of the Caspian Sea is known.

Elsewhere, the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world, is also under dire threat.  But unlike the Caspian, its problems stem from shrinkage.

Up until the early 1950s, the Aral Sea area was designated by the former Soviet Union as a region that would provide independence from the West.  But when central planners decided to divert large amounts of water from the rivers feeding the Aral for crop irrigation, the once abundant sea shrank.

It continues to do so today at a rate scientists say is even faster than previously thought.  The side effects are enormous, according to the Moscow campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace in Russia, Alexei Kiselyov.

"Its health problems caused by pollution,” he noted.  “First of all by salt, and some chemicals like pesticides which are everywhere there... in water, in dust, in soil and sand.  So, people everywhere, especially kids, have huge health problems."

Mr. Kiselyov notes that the child mortality rates around the Aral Sea are reported to be the highest in the former Soviet Union.  There is also a high level of maternity death, and diseases such as tuberculosis, typhus, and hepatitis have been noted.  Blood, respiratory, and heart disease are also on the rise.

Now known as one of the greatest man-made natural disasters in the world, Mr. Kiselyov says Greenpeace believes the solution to the Aral Sea problem may lie with the public at large.

"It is possible for every citizen to push your [their] small company polluting the part of the river [feeding into the Aral Sea] to change the situation, or to change the discharge.  I mostly believe in people's force, rather than in government," he added.

Mr. Kiselyov also subscribes to the view that money helps.  But he says he personally does not believe the countries sharing the Aral, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will manage to raise the money needed, even with international support.  Ultimately, he says the Aral Sea is bound to disappear.

Peter Zavialov of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow holds a more optimistic view.  He told VOA more study is needed.

Mr. Zavialov says any interference with an ecosystem, especially if it is a water ecosystem, has to be thoroughly examined.  This was not the case with the Aral Sea, he adds, and the results speak for themselves.

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