The Caspian Sea, surrounded by the five coastal countries of Azerbaijan, Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation and Turkmenistan, is the largest land-locked body of water on earth. Situated in a natural depression, below mean sea level, it receives water from the Volga, Ural and the Kura rivers and numerous other freshwater inputs, but has no outlet to the world's oceans. The Volga River, the largest in Europe, is the source of 80% of the Caspian's freshwater inflow. The isolation of the Caspian basin together with its climatic and salinity gradients have created a unique ecological system with myriad species endemic to the Caspian waters. Among the most famous are the Caspian sturgeon and the rare fresh water seal.
What are the main environmental concerns in the region?
Booming exploitation of oil and gas resources, growing networks of pipelines and transport routes, industrial pollution from inflowing rivers and ground water, sea-level fluctuations, climate change and coastal desertification, and in particular the loss of biodiversity due to overexploitation of fish stocks and the introduction of invasive alien species – these are just some of the many environmental challenges that the Caspian Sea is facing. Since most of the problems are transboundary in nature, these challenges require cooperation between all Caspian states.
The Caspian coast is also home to around 15 million people, who, to a large extent depend on the natural riches of the Caspian Sea. Therefore, protecting the Caspian environment is not only a matter of protection for the environment's own sake, but is also a prerequisite for reducing health risks for the coastal population and for fostering sustainable economic development.
How is UNEP helping address these challenges?
The Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the Tehran Convention, aims at protecting the Caspian Sea from all sources of pollution and at preserving and restoring its biological resources for present and future generations. Adopted and signed in 2003, the Convention entered into force in August 2006 and is the first regional legally binding agreement signed and ratified by all five Caspian littoral states.
The Tehran Convention addresses all threats to the Caspian environment and notably commits the Caspian states to jointly prevent pollution and protect the marine environment as well as encourages the Contracting Parties to build and secure a sustainable future. UNEP administers the Secretariat of the Tehran Convention and, inter alia, assists Contracting Parties in the development and negotiations of ancillary protocols to the Convention.
In the framework of the Convention, four Protocols have been developed on the thematic priority areas of environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context, protection against pollution from land-based sources and activities, conservation of biological diversity and preparedness and joint response towards oil spill incidents. The development of a protocol on data and information sharing in support of the implementation of the Tehran Convention is also underway.
Three protocols have been adopted and signed by the Caspian countries so far: the "Aktau" Protocol on Regional Preparedness, Response and Cooperation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents (at COP3, in August 2011), the "Moscow" Protocol for the Protection of the Caspian Sea against Pollution from Land-based Sources and Activities (at COP4, in December 2012) and the "Ashgabat" Protocol for the Conservation of Biological Diversity (at COP5, in May 2014). The Protocol addressing environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context is close to finalization and expected to be adopted and signed at COP6 in Azerbaijan.
Following the adoption of a Regional Strategic Convention Action Plan, National Convention Action Plans with embedded National Public Participation Strategies have been developed in all Caspian littoral states. These plans anticipate the implementation of the four Protocols and together with a proposal for an environmental monitoring programme, were welcomed by Ministers at COP4.
A web-based Caspian Environmental Information Centre (CEIC), serving as thesaurus for information on the state of the Caspian Sea environment and on the implementation of the Tehran Convention, and offering a virtual platform to organize the involvement and participation of stakeholders, has also been established and is operational.
The first Caspian Sea State of the Environment (SoE) Report prepared by UNEP/GRID-Arendal in 2011 is available on the website of the Tehran Convention (www.tehranconvention.org).