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25 July 2023

The Caspian Is Shrinking, And Kazakhstan Has Front Row Seats

Activists and experts agree that the recession of Aqtau's shoreline will have dire consequences, with energy plants, ports, and trade routes at particular risk.

The Caspian Is Shrinking, And Kazakhstan Has Front Row Seats

Image: Adam Loader/Shutterstock

(RFE.RL) AQTAU, Kazakhstan -- Azamat Sarsenbaev, an activist from the Kazakh Caspian Sea city of Aqtau, is trying to bring attention to a problem that is closing in on residents of his city at the same time as their only water source recedes further into the distance.

“Ten years ago we would swim around 200 meters in order to get to these rocks,” Sarsenbaev told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, recalling his childhood. “Now we are standing on them.”

There is no doubt that the Caspian Sea -- the world’s largest enclosed body of water that is shared by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- is shrinking.

And because Kazakhstan’s section of the Caspian is among the shallowest, it is no surprise that authorities here are scrambling to deal with severe consequences that are no longer far off on the horizon.

Earlier this summer, Aqtau officials announced a state of emergency in relation to the recession of the shoreline -- a measure intended to accelerate mitigation efforts.

Kazakh Environment Minister Zulfiya Suleimenova acknowledged the scale of the problem on the day of the June 8 announcement, citing “climate change as an exogenous factor” and upstream “regulation” of rivers that flow into the lake, such as the Russian-originating Volga and the Ural, as the main causes.

Sarsenbaev is less diplomatic.

Azamat Sarsenbaev, a civil activist from Aqtau in the Mangystau region

While acknowledging that Kazakhstan needs to use water more efficiently, he argues that the construction of multiple dams and other industrial objects along the Russian parts of those two rivers is causing big problems for Kazakhstan.

“They stop the water flow. And if less is coming in from the rivers, the Caspian will keep shrinking,” he said, dismissing the idea popular among many Aqtau residents that the latest plunge is the result of time-honored tectonic shifts under the seabed.

Geological changes have caused sudden shoreline recessions in the past -- including in the late 1970s -- but “a lot has changed in 50 years,” Sarsenbaev argued.

Aqtau: A City On The Edge

Experts say the Caspian’s most recent shrinking phase began around 2005.

In the last few years, the rate of recession has increased, reaching a visibly critical low.

Image: ekipaj/Shutterstock
According to Nature, a British scientific journal, the Caspian Sea’s levels are projected to fall by nine to 18 meters “in medium to high emissions scenarios” before 2100.

The drop is “caused by a substantial increase in lake evaporation that is not balanced by increasing river discharge or precipitation,” the authors of a paper published in 2020 said.

Indeed, current trends suggest that both of those balancing factors may now be in decline.

The need for immediate action is not lost on Murat Igaliev, deputy director of the Mangyshlak Atomic Energy Combine (MAEK), an energy complex that comprises a decommissioned nuclear power plant -- thermal power plants that provide heat and electricity for Aqtau -- and a plant that desalinates water for the town where more than 200,000 people live.

MAEK, in turn, depends on Caspian Sea water drawn from a water intake channel.