5 Transformational Caspian Sea Mega-Projects

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed inland body of water on Earth by area. It is variously classed as the world’s largest lake or a full-fledged sea. It is bounded by Kazakhstan to the northeast, Russia to the northwest, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran to the south, and Turkmenistan to the southeast. Ancient inhabitants of its coast perceived the Caspian Sea as an ocean, probably because of its saltiness and large size.

The sea has a surface area of 371,000 km2 (143,200 sq mi) (not including the detached lagoon of Garabogazköl) and a volume of 78,200 km3 (18,800 cu mi). It has a salinity of approximately 1.2% (12 g/l), about a third of the salinity of most seawater.

The Caspian Sea’s disputed legal status complicates actions to preserve it. There is no international agreement about whether to define the Caspian as a sea or a lake, and that makes the extent of territorial waters and sharing formula difficult. There are a lot of ambiguities.

But, the Caspian Sea itself is in crisis; along with its surrounding areas. There are huge environmental challenges.  Its time, for a deep, strategic, multi-lateral effort to deal with this crisis and create the stage for the future.

A senior Iranian researcher recently noted: “Imagine what would happen if each of those countries decided to pump water from the Caspian Sea, desalinate it and transfer the salt and wastewater back to the sea. It’ll eradicate all [the Caspian’s] marine life,” And, this, my friends is precisely what is or will happen if all the proposals on the table involving the Caspian Sea become reality.

Before we talk about the projects themselves, lets discuss a framework for addressing the projects. There is a need for a new multi-state authority – that I am calling the Caspian Sea Authority – the CSA.

Caspian Sea Authority

There are many water bound authorities that regulate and address the needs of a body of water and the needs of the surrounding areas. There are examples within existing states, like for example the Tennessee valley authority and the Mississippi valley division (of the Army Corps of Engineers), in the U.S.; and then there are also multi-lateral authorities like the St. Lawrence River Authority (that traverses both the U.S. and Canada). Many of these authorities, are self-funded and operate independently from political control.

In most cases, these authorities levy license fees, tolls or both on vessels using the waterway. They lay down rules regarding the way vessels are navigated. And have overall responsibility for activity in that body of water and surrounding regions. Responsibilities vary, but usually include: maintaining locks and other structures, dredging, flood control, and managing ownership of the waterway and surrounding regions.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a good model. Because it not only provides navigation and flood control; but it is also involved in electricity generation, manufacturing, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley. Its role as a regional economic development agency is key, because of its ability to reinvest income and thus to quickly modernize the region’s economy and society. Interestingly, the TVA’s service area covers most of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small slices of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. It was the first large regional planning agency and remains the largest in the world (soon to be taken over by the Caspian Sea Authority, of course)! In 2013, TVA had revenues of $11.56 billion USD and operating income of $1.453 billion USD.

So before, we get into the projects themselves, it is important to recognize that the only way that these projects can succeed – is to place them within the framework of an overall “authority” that can not only execute them, but also finance, operate and maintain the projects long after construction. The Caspian Sea Authority is critically necessary.

The projects are as follows:

  1. Eurasian (Manych) Canal: The Eurasian (Manych) Canal, is a desperately needed link between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. It would open every single littoral nation on the Caspian Sea to the world’s oceans, and thus make their ports accessible to global shipping.
  2. Water Transfer to Aral Sea: The Aral Sea is dying. The dry ‘sea-bed’ is a dessert. Something must be done.
  3. Water Transfer to Lake Urmia: Lake Urmia is dying. The dry ‘sea-bed’ is a dessert. Something must be done.
  4. Water Transfer to (Iran’s) Semnan Province: Iran’s Semnan region is dry dessert that can be revitalized with water transfer from the Caspian Sea
  5. Caspian Sea Active Water Balancing (including replenishment from Black Sea). The Caspian Sea level has oscillated significantly over the past century leading to severe issues in its surrounding area. At the end of the day, the Sea’s level, and water quality must remain stable, and consistent if it is to become a source of significant regional development.

So, one by one, let’s explore these projects.

Eurasian (Manych) Canal

The Eurasian Canal, as it is called now, is a proposed 700-kilometre-long (430 mi) canal connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea along the Kuma-Manych Depression. Currently, a chain of lakes and reservoirs and a shallow irrigation Kuma-Manych Canal exist along this route. The canal is intended to provide a shorter route for shipping than the existing Volga–Don Canal system of waterways; it would also require fewer locks (or lower-rise locks) than the Volga-Don route to the Black Sea (which exists today).

The most probable features of the Eurasia Canal are as follows: 6.5 m depth, 110 m width and more than 75 million tons per year of traffic capacity. The canal is envisaged for passage of vessels with a freight-carrying capacity up to 10,000 tons. This width and depth would put the canal on par with the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal – which is a good operating model, since it connects ports along the Chesapeake Bay, like Baltimore to Philadelphia on the Delaware Bay.

It is important to note that The Kuma-Manych depression area (where the Eurasian Canal is planned) area is quite arid, with annual precipitation no more than 400 mm (in the western section) and 200 mm (in the eastern section). To operate the shipping canal with locks, a significant amount of additional freshwater would be necessary. Three options for its provision are being considered:

  • It is proposed to reduce water loss by building a concrete-lined canal, and a pipeline, along the canal.
  • Alternatively, there is a proposal to pump water from the mouths of the Volga River to the eastern end of the canal (presumably, along a pipeline that would follow the Caspian coast), and then uphill along the eastern section of the canal.
  • A third option is to increase the water flow of the irrigation canals that already bring Kuban and Terek water to the West and East Manych, such as the Nevinnomyssk Canal, the Terek-Kuma Canal and the Kuma-Manych Canal. The idea is to make better use of the overflow water during floods on the Kuban and Terek. It is expected that this plan would alleviate the problem of frequent fluctuation of water levels in these rivers.

Supplying the Manych Waterway with freshwater from the Volga using the first or second option can compensate the Sea of Azov for the volume of freshwater that is now lost by the Don River to the locks of the Volga-Don Ship Canal.

Integrating the 700 km-long Black Sea-Caspian Sea pipeline plus the 600 km-long Caspian Sea-Aralkum Desert pipeline would form a combined effective pipeline system or network that totals ~1,200 km, ~54% of the 2,200 km length of the “Sib-Aral Canal Project”.

This Canal would make a critical difference to the economies of all littoral states, and revenues from this canal would help underwrite other projects involving the Caspian Sea.

Water Transfer to Aral Sea

The Aral Sea was once fed by two famous rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. But since 1950, massive redirection of these river waters has resulted in a world-scale catastrophe. The Aral Sea today is a shadow of its former self. There are in fact now three discontinuous lakes remaining. Much of the sea bed is an abandoned dessert – appearing like a moonscape.

To restore this “sea”, water must be brought to the tune of 56 cubic km per year – or, expressed differently, ~1,776 m3/s – over about 650 km. This can be achieved with a 30 m diameter, normal, horizontal steel pipe having a 30 m diameter i.e. a seawater velocity of ~2.5 m/s inside the pipe! Obviously, a substantial volume of freshwater must be redirected and allowed to pass back into a rejuvenated Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In other words, the “Aral Sea” will then be separated from its feeding rivers. This will induce good long-term rural and urban water conservation practices in Central Asia.

A water-filled Aral Sea will improve the local climate and make the region more favorable for human resettlement and tourism. As a water source, the Caspian Sea is by far the best option for revitalizing the Aral Sea at the lowest economic and environmental cost; rather than absorbing new freshwater from other Aral Sea basin and Siberian rivers. It’s a no brainer.

New industries such as fish farming can be established on the back of this project, with substantial export potential for what is now a very depressed economic landscape around the Aral Sea.

Water Transfer to Lake Urmia

Lake Urmia is the sixth largest saltwater lake in the world and the largest in the Middle East. It is approximately 55 km wide and extends over 140 km from the north to south. It has been shrinking for a long time, with an annual evaporation rate of 0.6-1 meter. It is the subject of a lot of public criticism and concern.

Like the famous Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the Salton Sea in California, the salty expanse of Lake Urmia in Iran has been drying up and shrinking for decades.

Like the Aral See, climate change, wasteful irrigation practices and the colossal depletion of groundwater reserves are the major reasons behind the chronic water shortage challenging the lake for decades and seemingly getting worse every year. In late April 2017, NASA’s Aqua satellite captured Lake Urmia with a deep green hue. But as of mid-July, the body of water was filled with algae and bacteria that turned it into a stained red pool.

As the lake dries out, its salinity increases. The warm water’s high salt concentration makes what’s left of the lake a prime breeding ground for Dunaliella algae, which can turn the water blood-red.

Based on satellite observations, Lake Urmia has lost about 70 percent of its surface area in the past 14 years.  “If land use and water consumption remain as it is now, then the lake would disappear soon,” Hossein Akhani, a biologist at the University of Tehran, told Scientific American. “There’s no doubt about that.”

In a similar fashion to the rescue of the Aral Sea, a long, wide diameter pipeline from the Caspian Sea can revitalize this lake and set the stage for significant economic growth.  Tourism and migratory birds will return. And the lake which was once one of the world’s largest brine shrimp habitats, can once again cultivate shrimp! And become a source of economic development.

Water Transfer to (Iran’s) Semnan Province

The plan to transfer water from Caspian Sea to the drought-ridden Semnan Province (to the South of the Caspian Sea) appears to be on its way. There is a growing drought in the region, and water from the Caspian Sea seems to be the only option.

Caspian Sea Active Water Balancing (including replenishment from Black Sea)

It is a well-established fact that the world-oceans rose by ~13 cm during the 20th century (and is continuing to rise). Also, interestingly, the Caspian Sea’s water level rose by ~13 cm between 197 and 1995. However, since 1995, there has been a significant drop in the Caspian Sea’s water level. Coastal erosion, infrastructure damage and other macro-problems are anticipated as the overall Caspian Sea Level oscillates up and down, creating chronic drag on the fragile economies of the bordering nations. Recent super-computer climate modeling hints that the Caspian Sea climate regime is changing, and there is therefore a possibility that the Caspian Sea may decrease in elevation by several meters during the 21st century. Hence, a replenishment of the Caspian Sea with filtered seawater imported from the Black Sea by a tensioned textile pipeline is the key to preserving the Sea, enabling critical projects (for which the Caspian Sea is the only source of water).


Allow me to conclude by providing two more examples of how other Water Based Authorities function, in order to illustrate my overall point: that these projects can be accomplished, and the overall Sea can be managed effectively, simply because it is done elsewhere. I urge all readers to take these proposals seriously and set the stage for the regions future.

First, consider the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC). Its an agency of the United States Department of Transportation that operates and maintains the U.S.-owned and operated facilities of the joint United States-Canadian Saint Lawrence Seaway. It operates 2 of the 15 locks of the Seaway between Montreal and Lake Erie.

Then, consider The United States Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division (MVD) that is responsible water resources programs within 370,000-square-miles of the Mississippi River Valley, as well as the watershed portions of the Red River of the North that are within the United States. This area more than 2 x larger than the Caspian Sea, and by all account the MVD has operated successfully for a very long time. It excludes the entire watersheds of the Missouri River and Ohio River, and portions of the Arkansas River and the Red River of the South, but otherwise encompasses the entire Mississippi River from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. The district includes all or parts of 13 states: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and South Dakota.

There are precedents. The creation of a Caspian Sea Authority is feasible, and in fact critical to the survival of the whole region.

I also think the success of the Caspian Sea Authority would set the stage for the creation of a new (Central Asian) regional union, modeled on the European Union. It is interesting to note, that the roots of the European Union involved the creation of the French-German coal and steel accords – an economic framework that led to an eventual political and fiscal union.

There is nothing like a crisis to unite people and create a spirit of cooperation. This spirit can become contagious. In dealing with the Caspian Sea, new seeds can be planted for the establishment of a new Central Asian Union (that I have dubbed the “Median” Union) which can become a new hub of economic activity and a new engine for global economic growth.

As the Chinese proverb goes: Every problem is in fact an opportunity. Lets not waste this one.

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