Given the instability and divisions across our world today, it is hardly a surprise that very little international attention has been paid to the challenges of the Caspian Sea or the fifth summit next month between the countries which border it. After all, it might be the biggest inland water body on the planet, but very few people could point to it on a map without difficulty.
But this lack of attention to the meeting of the leaders of the five Caspian Sea nations in Aktau does not make it any less important. The discussions taking place will have a big impact on the future of this huge area of water and the wider region by agreeing for the first time on a legal basis to resolve differences and encourage cooperation.
Not long ago, the need for such a legal basis was not so vital. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was the only other country which bordered the Caspian so finding solutions to potential issues was relatively straightforward. But now there are five with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan joining Russia and Iran as sovereign territories who rightly all have a say in how the Caspian is used and protected.
It is easy to see where there might be differences. For land-locked nations like Kazakhstan, the Caspian is a vital transport route. As a self-contained water body without access to the sea, any pollutants which flow into it from rivers, from industrial operations on it or around its coasts are trapped with potentially damaging impacts on the entire eco-system and health of local citizens.
The stakes are higher still because of the vast reserves of oil and gas under the sea bed. The Caspian Sea basin contains some of the biggest fields in the world although harnessing their potential has required tremendous engineering ingenuity. But with such wealth, there is always the greater risk of tensions as well, of course, as environmental damage.
The potential for damage is not restricted to the fear of oil spills or chemical pollution. It might seem fanciful to believe that the very survival of such a huge water body – around the size of Japan and containing around 40 percent of all the lake water in the world – might be threatened, but the same would once have been said of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk to a fraction of its former size within two generations.
The Caspian Sea has regularly expanded and shrunk over many centuries, but there is some evidence that the higher temperatures caused by climate change have begun to reduce its depth over the last two decades. If this was to continue, vision and co-operation to counter this threat will be needed as it will to overcome many of the other shared challenges, such as agreeing on access and usage, tackling pollution and harnessing resources fairly and sustainably.
Removing the barriers to these goals has not been easy, particularly without consensus on the legal status of the Caspian itself. Some countries argued that the international rules which governed seas and oceans did not automatically apply to an inland lake. Each, too, had its own national interests to protect and pursue with divisions over boundaries, mineral resources, demilitarisation and security.
Step by step, progress has been made with Kazakhstan playing a major part in this slow process. It was in Almaty more than 20 years ago that the first cautious steps were taken to find common ground over the Caspian’s legal status. This has been followed by important measures in which our country had a detailed involvement on the protection of the marine environment, bolstering security and the creation of a plan for emergency cooperation in the case of accidents in the oil industry and on security.
Kazakhstan is now party to 17 international treaties covering the Caspian Sea, nearly half of which have been agreed between all five countries. But an agreement on the sea’s legal status, which should be signed at Aktau in a fortnight, will finally provide the basis for disputes to be settled quickly and enhance cooperation. It may not receive global attention today but, given the importance of the region and the role the Caspian Sea plays within it, historians in the future may come to a very different conclusion of its long-term significance.