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Editorial comment

To sea, or not to sea

In August, leaders from the five countries that border the Caspian Sea (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) met in the seaside city of Aktau, Kazakhstan, to sign an agreement concerning the legal status of the body of water.


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The matter has been in dispute since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Prior to 1991, Moscow and Tehran had signed a number of bilateral treaties about the Caspian, dividing it up equally and sometimes calling it the ‘Soviet and Iranian Sea’. When the USSR was broken up and republics formed, the number of states bordering the sea grew from two to five, meaning three more claims on the sea and what lies within it. In the almost 30 years since then, approximately 50 meetings have been held to thrash out the status of the water.

On 12 August this year, the ‘Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea’ was signed by the five parties: it keeps most of the sea in shared use but does mandate the division of the seabed and underground resources.

The Caspian sea has historically been known as the largest lake in the world, but was dubbed a ‘sea’ by the Romans because of its salinity, not to mention its size (371 000 km2), length (1030 km) and depth (1025 m).

Sea or lake, why does it matter? International law says that if the Caspian is a lake, then its surfaces and beds must be divided equally between the countries that border it. Seas are governed by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so if it’s a sea, then the countries draw lines from their land borders into the water until they meet a midpoint with the lines of their neighbours. Each country claims its own patch of water depending on the lengths of their borders. Furthermore, if the Caspian is an inland sea, its waters and resources are regulated by UNCLOS, are open to all the littoral states, and are accessible to these states and multinational petroleum corporations.

The agreement reached between the five countries is somewhat complex. In effect, the surface of the water is to be treated as a sea, with states granted jurisdiction over 15 nautical miles of water from their respective coasts and fishing rights over an additional ten miles. But the seabed and subsequent deposits are not allocated in such a precise way. More agreements will be needed in order to divide the seabed into territorial areas. A statement about the agreement, issued by Russia, said that the delimitation of the seabed and subsoil “shall be effected by agreement between states with adjacent and opposite coasts.”

Below the seabed, the Caspian holds considerable oil and gas resources: an estimated 48 billion bbls of oil and 292 trillion ft3 of natural gas. The five countries already exploit the oil and gas reserves closest to their coasts, where jurisdiction is the same regardless of whether the Caspian is a lake or a sea. However, many hydrocarbon resources in the Caspian (particularly in the south of the sea) are disputed. Any binding agreement about the water needs to clearly outline each party’s access to, and right to exploit, the vast oil and gas resources held therein.

The new convention allows the construction of pipelines, with the approval of the countries whose seabed they cross. Turkmenistan has long wanted to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline from its shores to Baku in Azerbaijan, in order to export gas to Europe. The project is opposed by Russia, but has been evaluated and approved in theory by the World Bank and the EU. Whether the new agreement will facilitate pipeline projects or hinder them is still to be seen.

Staying with the theme of bodies of water, in this issue we include a special feature on rivers. Gordon Cope investigates the potential of river crossing construction projects to ignite the interest of anti-pipeline groups (and explains how pipeline companies tackle the challenge of working safely around rivers); and a report from Atmos International details retrofitting leak detection technology at river crossings and waterways, in order to better protect HCAs.


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