The Iranian government’s space agency has said that the Caspian Sea’s water level has declined to its lowest in 100 years, with the diminishing water flow from Russia’s Volga River being primarily to blame.
The Volga, Europe’s longest river, is the most important contributor of water to the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water. According to experts, the river accounts for 86 percent of the Caspian Sea’s inflow, but an increasinging number of dams has reduced this inflow year after year.
The drop of water level is evident in the shallow areas of the southern Caspian Sea such as Miankaleh and Anzali.
A continued fall in the water level would greatly modify the coastline which, in turn, could turn all wetlands in northern Iran to dust bowls, triggering an environmental disaster for the entire region.
By severely restricting the inflow of water from the Volga, Russia goes against the spirit of the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, which provides littoral states — Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan — with the mandate “to prevent, control and reduce pollution of the Caspian Sea resulting from seabed activities.”
It also violates the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
The campaign to introduce a new international crime of “ecocide” at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has received increased support over the past years.
The most obvious benefit of a new crime of “ecocide” is the expansion of international accountability for environmental harms. It would theoretically enable individuals to be prosecuted for disasters such as ocean damage through oil spills, deforestation, land and oil contamination and air pollution.
It is now urgent to prevent the kind of ecological and socioeconomic devastation that has taken place in the Aral Sea, once one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world, which has largely dried up due to the Soviet Union’s cotton-growing policies in Central Asia.
For the past five years, the five littoral Caspian states have been negotiating to determine the baselines in the sea.
The division of the Caspian Sea seabed resources and the determination of each country's share of this body of water depends on the determination of the baselines. The advancement of the coastline toward the deep waters, as has already happened on the coast of Russia, can potentially affect the littoral countries’ claims regarding the baselines and make them claim a bigger share of the sea.
A baseline, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is the line (or the curve) along the coast from which the seaward limits of a state's territorial waters and certain other maritime zones of jurisdiction are measured, such as a state's exclusive economic zone. This line lies 15 nautical miles from the coast and, for 10 nautical miles beyond the baseline, the area is an exclusive fishing zone. And beyond this zone, the five littoral states equally share the sea but the seabed resources are divided among them bases on these lines.
The advancement of baselines in the Caspian Sea means that each country's share of its waters will increase and, of course, when the sea recedes again, the baseline can no longer be changed. Does Russia intend to restore the water inflow from the Volga to the Caspian Sea after the baselines are set for good, or will it continue the current process of destroying the sea? It’s impossible to answer this question at the moment.
According to the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, the baselines were to be based on “the line of the multi-year mean level of the Caspian Sea measured at minus 28.0 meters mark of the 1977 Baltic Sea Level Datum from the zero-point of the Kronstadt sea-gauge, running through the continental or insular part of the territory of a Caspian littoral State as marked on large-scale charts officially recognized by that State.” The charts and the maps were prepared by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Now, according to the Iran National Cartographic Center, the level of the Caspian Sea has reached the minus 28.0 meters mark, meaning that if the baseline for Russia is set at this moment, it would gain the most.
Whatever the intentions of Russia might be, as of now it has extensively damaged the Caspian Sea and, if it continues on this course, these damage could become irreversible.
Russia has a history of policies that have caused extensive and irreparable damage to the environment, and the current situation of the Aral Sea, which was world's fourth largest lake in 1960, is one of them.
The Aral Sea lies in Central Asia between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Around three decades before its downfall, the Soviet Union, which included these two countries, diverted the waters of the rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya away from Aral Sea and into Karakum Desert, mainly to grow cotton. As a result, Aral Sea has mostly dried up.