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Vital Caspian Graphics

Big projects, big consequences


In the 1930s the Soviet state launched a succession of Herculean public works projects, all over the USSR, to tame nature. Their aim was to facilitate access to resources and improve industrial and agricultural productivity at any cost. Gigantic dams, enormous canals and vast irrigation systems were consequently built. These gigantic infrastructures had a significant effect on nearby ecosystems, often inflicting lasting damage. The Caspian Sea is no exception and the work carried out in its vicinity has jeopardized its fragile ecological balance.

Numerous dams and hydroelectric power stations have fragmented the great rivers of the Volga. This has altered their hydrological regime and caused variations in the level of the sea and the intensity of sediment transport, in the Volga delta and at its mouth. It has also cut off the caviar-producing sturgeons form their spawning grounds. The 101-kilometre Volga-Don canal, which opened in 1952, links the Caspian to the world’s seas. After negotiating a system involving some 15 locks, hundreds of thousands of ships have, over the last 50 years, transported oil and raw materials from the Caspian all over the Soviet Union, and to markets in Europe and the United States. 

In Azerbaijan the lower reaches and mouth of the Kura river were no more fortunate. The development of a vast irrigation system, covering more than 100 square kilometres – and left without maintenance for many years – led to the destruction of farming land and polluted much of the sea along the coastline with pesticides and heavy metals, a situation aggravated by the presence upstream of the Kura-Araks system of gigantic industrial facilities (Alaverdi and Megri-Kajaran-Kafan in Armenia, Rustavi-Madneuli-Tbilisi in Georgia).

To this list we might add other surrealistic plans, which never came to fruition, such as the project to transfer water from the Caspian or the Ob and Irtych rivers to the Aral Sea. However Turkmenistan is planning to extend the Kara-Kum (currently Turkmenbashi) canal by about 300 kilometres as far as the port of Turkmenbashi (former Krasnovodsk). The canal, already in very poor repair, would require a huge amount of work to operate normally. It connects the Amu-Daria river to the western regions of the country, extending over 1,300 kilometres.

The disappearing sea

Comparing a series of satellite images from different periods a Californian hydrologist discovered in 1983 that a huge white spot had taken the place of the vast Kara Bogaz Gulf (literally “dark gullet” in Turkmen) in the south-east corner of the Caspian. The gulf had simply disappeared. What, he wondered, had happened? How could such a large volume of water have evaporated in just a few years, only to be replaced by a salty dustbowl?

As Frank Westerman relates in his book Ingenieurs van de ziel, it wasn’t the first time the Kara Bogaz Gulf had been at the centre of a mystery. For more than three centuries it has inspired extravagant tales told by local sailors. In 1727, for instance, a Russian navigator tried to explore the gulf, starting from the Caspian Sea, but gave up, because his crew saw a foaming gully, into which the sea water was rushing with untold force, and refused to go any further. A century later, in 1847, Lieutenant Jerebtsov, a maritime explorer and cartographer of the Czar, undertook to map the contours of the Caspian, discovering, according to Konstantin Paustovsky, the gloomy coastline and entrance to the gulf. Many traders and sailors have given accounts of their terror at the entry to the Kara Bogaz. Awesome tales were common, peppered with claims that the inlet was a whirlpool leading to a gulf where the water disappeared into the depths. Boats sank there without trace and fishermen who ventured there were swallowed up and dissolved, as if they had fallen into an acid bath. Mariners would avoid at any price the “salty chute that made so much noise they were afraid of being dragged down into hell”. But it took more than its sinister reputation to impress Lieutenant Jerebtsov. He decided to carry on through the famous narrows and subsequently described in his diary how the ship was carried forward, shaken by the powerful current, until it finally reached an expanse of calm and silent water. He discovered a “salty world” and colonies of pink flamingos.

But should we conclude that sailors in the past knew that the Caspian Sea was subject to sudden changes in level? As the water in the Kara Bogaz Gulf evaporates faster than it can be replaced it is always a few metres lower than its larger neighbour, which may at times have turned the narrow defile into a veritable waterfall. Be that as it may, much of the gulf’s misfortunes are due to the scale and speed at which its level fluctuated and the steps taken by the Soviet authorities to control variations. The scientists were unable to agree on the reasons for the drop in sea level that was roughly equivalent to a 10% reduction in its surface area between 1930 and 1977. Among the possible explanations, one was particularly favoured by the authorities in the 1970s. The gulf, they maintained, was “a useless caldron for evaporation, an insatiable mouth swallowing up the precious water of the Caspian” and obviously to blame. For the water managers this was a political issue. Kara Bogaz should be allowed to die a hero’s death, like a soldier at the front. The lagoon should be sacrificed so that the water, now so rare, could be used elsewhere, said the deputy minister in charge of water and forests. The suggestion prompted a disagreement with the Ministry of Chemical Affairs, which was exploiting the sodium sulphate found there, the region being the Soviet salt industry’s main centre.

It was decided to close the passage. Work proceeded in February 1980 despite the fact that the level of the Caspian had started to rise again three years earlier. The Soviet engineers apparently assumed it was only a temporary change. Only a narrow canal was left allowing a small amount of water to pass, thanks to which the water in the Kara Bogaz Gulf was expected to last a further 25 years. Much to everyone’s surprise the gulf dried up 10 times faster than had been forecast by the Institute of Hydraulic Affairs and by autumn 1983 it was all over. The pink flamingos died in droves, the little brine shrimp on which they fed having disappeared. The lagoon turned into a vast desert covered with a 50-centimetre layer of precipitated salt, which was picked up by the wind and blown for hundreds of kilometres, as far as the Chernoziem (fertile soil) area of Russia, raising the salt content of the soil. With the closure of the strait, the gulf also stopped acting as a natural hydrological regulation system (keeping the salt content at a relatively low level). The ensuing increase in the salt content of the southern part of the Caspian, to levels exceeding 15 grams per litre, had disastrous consequences for the sturgeon population. In the spring of 1992, in view of the scale of the disaster, Turkmenistan, which had just declared its independence, decided to recover the Kara Bogaz Gulf from the desert. It therefore destroyed the dyke, restoring the connection between the sea and the gulf.

In the meantime closing the gulf had resulted in the collapse of the salt industry. The area around the Kara Bogaz nevertheless remains the world’s biggest source of the raw material for the chemical industry. Exploitation started at the beginning of the 20th century along fairly traditional lines and only switched to more industrial techniques in the early 1930s. Annual production capacity is enormous: 400,000 tonnes of sodium sulphate (used in the glass industry, feed for livestock and detergents), 100,000 tonnes of bischofite (a defoliant used for machine-harvesting of cotton), 35,000 tonnes of epsomite (used in paper-making, tanning – to treat leather – and the textile industry), 10,000 tonnes of glauberite (pharmaceutical industry) and 20,000 tonnes of sodium chloride (cooking salt). From the 1930s onwards the drop in the level of the Caspian and the change in the chemical conditions led to a deterioration in the quality of the salt. As the brine thickened it accelerated precipitation of the salt as sodium chloride, a less valuable product than sodium sulphate. In the 1940s and 1950s the industry moved from the exploitation of open-air reserves to underground resources trapped below several metres of sediment.

The story came to a happy end. Well almost. After destruction of the dam, the water flowed in at a rate of 700 cubic metres a second and it only took a few months to refill the lagoon (during which time the level of the Caspian happened to go on rising). The crust of salt dissolved and the pink flamingos, ducks and pelicans returned. The Kara Bogaz almost completely recovered its ecological balance. Only the chemical industry, which depended on a system of management that had disappeared, did not survive this unusual episode in the life of the lagoon.