The marks of human activity

 

Figure: Oil forecast in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Numbers should however be treated with caution, estimates changing frequently as new exploration work is carried out. The most recent forecasts for Azerbaijan have been more moderate, whereas new exploitation work will soon be starting in Kazakhstan.
Oil slicks glittering on the surface of the sea and thousands of hectares of soil penetrated by oil leaking from abandoned wells are just part of the pollution that people living around the Caspian Sea must endure. In addition there are various industries, particularly chemicals and mining, large-scale irrigated farming and untreated household waste. Combined with the effects of the oil, all these forms of pollution have a serious impact on the well-being of humans and wildlife.

Many opportunities are offered by the Caspian Sea region. It is important that they are handled with care in order to maintain the richness in bio- and mineral resources over a long time. The natural wealth of the region round the Caspian Sea in mineral resources also involves high metal concentrations. Industrial activities, in particular mining, are raising the metal concentration in sediments to levels exceeding permissible limits.

Increased activity on oil-drilling platforms and in transport obviously increases the risk of accidents at sea. Exploitation of the offshore reserves in the northern part of the sea, where the water is very shallow, involves specific risks. Depending on the season (ice forms in some places in winter) access, in the event of an accident, may be very difficult.

The crude oil and gaseous condensates from the North Caspian oil fields have a very high sulphur content. The refining process, in particular to produce liquid petroleum gas, leaves large mounds of sulphur deposited in the open where it contaminates the surrounding environment. Large amounts of toxic gas are released into the atmosphere too.

Once the activity stops, the waste remains and constitutes a hazard. There are hundreds of abandoned oil wells in Azerbaijan, and thousands in Kazakhstan, many of which have been submerged by the rising sea. There are reports of big leaks into the water, killing waterfowl and fish. Thousands of hectares of soil on Azerbaijan’s Apsheron peninsula are unsuitable for agricultural use. Some 600,000 hectares of land in the Atyrau and Mangystau Oblasts of Kazakhstan are polluted with a thick layer of oil penetrating the soil to a depth 8 to 10 metres and polluting the ground water.

 
 

Imported problems

The Volga, the main river flowing into the Caspian, brings polluted water from locations as far as 3,500 kilometres away. Nearly 45% of Russian industry and 50% of its agricultural production facilities are located in the vast river basin. Inadequately treated waste water – among others from the entire Moscow urban area and industrial centres such as Ekaterinburg and Perm – spills into tributaries of the Volga. Any waste that does not silt up behind a dam or soak into the Volga estuary ends up in the Caspian.

 
 

The situation at the mouth of the Kura-Araks River on the Apsheron Peninsula is similar, with a rising pollution load accumulating on the way through Georgia and Armenia. It then combines with the waste from two-thirds of Azerbaijan’s industrial production and more than a third of its population. The wastewater treatment facilities serving the major urban areas of Baku and Sumgait are not up to the task, unable to cope with the rapidly growing population.

Air quality has generally improved in recent years, mainly because industrial production dropped drastically since the collapse of the Soviet economic system. But increasing emissions from the expanding oil and gas sector, and a growing number of cars in cities, not only affect the health of local people, but contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, contributing in turn to observed trends in global warming. 

The type and severity of pollution must be deduced from analysis of data from selected cases. They provide an indication of accumulated pollution. For example, traces of the pesticide DDT in fish tissue and seals lead to the conclusion that DDT may be still in use despite an international agreement to stop its application, with the risks it involves for animals and humans. Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia have signed the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and Azerbaijan has adhered to it. The convention seeks to ban chemicals that are absorbed by fatty tissue and accumulate there, as is the case for DDT, enabling them to travel long distances. The drastically restricted use of DDT raises a new problem: the unused material is stockpiled without the necessary safety measures, and as such poses an additional health and environmental hazard.

The accumulation of pollution from all these different sources and the fact that several countries are involved makes it particularly difficult to manage.

 
 

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