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Russia finds Iran’s plans to use Caspian water for irrigation worrisome

April 18, 2012, 15:57 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, April 18 (Itar-Tass) — Iran’s plans for bringing water from the Caspian Sea to its cities in the desert have caused experts’ alarm in Russia, where memories are still fresh of the shallowing of Lake Aral as a result of irrigation projects. In the meantime, other Caspian states are quite calm about that, the more so, since they use Caspian water for desalination, too, although on a smaller scale than Iran is going to. In any case, experts say in chorus that possible effects of taking considerable amounts of water from the Caspian on the ecological system of the sea will require further studies and that such decisions cannot be made unilaterally, without consultations with the other Caspian states.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday declared the implementation of a project for bringing water from the Caspian sea to localities in the desert area for agricultural and industrial needs. The first phase of the project, estimated at 1.25 billion dollars, provides for laying a 150-kilometer-long pipeline to the city of Semnan and for the creation of a desalination facility with a capacity of 200 million cubic meters of water a year, or 548 million liters a day.

The two other stages of the project will bring water from the Caspian to other cities. The pipeline will be laid to the provinces of Semnan, Yazd and Kerman. Under the project the provinces’ central cities will be getting 500 million cubic meters of desalinated sea water, for which 10 billion dollars will be required.

The water from the Caspian will give a powerful boost to the economies of Iran’s central areas, Ahmadinejad said. “The desert is growing, so we shall have to control its growth,” Ahmadinejad said in the city of Sari, near the country’s Caspian coast.

The Caspian Sea is a land-locked body of water at the junction of Europe and Asia. Its water is salty. The Caspian’s level tends to fluctuate. According to 2009 statistics it went down to 27.16 meters below the sea level. Its area reduced from 422,000 square kilometers in 1930 to 371,000 square kilometers in 1970. But still it remains the world’s largest salt water lake.

The five littoral sates – Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan – still have unsettled controversies over the legal status of the Caspian Sea. The partners’ attitude to Iran’s plans are varied.

In Russia, many experts have responded to them critically. The chief of the public relations center at the fisheries agency Rosrybolovstvo, Alexander Saveliev, has told Itar-Tass that Iran’s plans for borrowing Caspian water will surely affect the ecological system. It is common knowledge that the level of the Caspian has been going down over years. Also, everybody knows that about 80 percent of the water it gets is from the Volga River.

Rosrybolovstvo believes that the Iranian project “should be closely studied within the framework of the five-party commission for the Caspian.”

Pumping hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water from the Caspian would kill this shallowing lake, the director of the Astrakhan State Biosphere Reserve, ecologist Nina Litvinova, told Itar-Tass.

“The Caspian Sea is getting shallow. Its level declines by 20 centimeters a year. The Volga is bringing less water into the sea. If water begins to be pumped out in such colossal amounts, this would cause irreparable harm to the entire ecological and biosphere system of the Caspian Sea,” she said.

The Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve measures 67,900 hectares in area, including more than 11,000 hectares taken up by the Caspian Sea. “The fall of the sea level always affects animal and plant life,” Litvinova said. “But this is a very complex system. For instance, when the sea gets shallow, the birds benefit from it, but fish dies.”

“In any case the Iranian authorities must coordinate such a large-scale project with all other Caspian states,” the ecologist agrees.

Other experts offer different opinions, though. For instance, the deputy director of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Arkady Tishkov, believes that “this is quite possible from the ecological standpoint, many others do the same.” The Iranians have declared the intention to take 500 million cubic meters of water, which poses no great risks to the sea,” he speculated.

The people of Kazakhstan share Russia’s concerns. The Iranian project may cause considerable harm to the country, says the water resources committee at Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture.

“If Iran goes ahead with its intention, naturally, the negative effects may ensue, in particular, in the Kazakh part of the Caspian. Our off-shore areas are the shallowest, and our scientists believe that the level of water may fall considerably,” the water resources committee’s chief expert, Muslim Zhiyenbayev, has told Itar-Tass.

He also believes that such issues cannot be resolved unilaterally. “In making such decisions Iran will be obliged to bear in mind the opinion of all countries having access to the Caspian,” Zhiyenbayev said.

Azerbaijan is not at all scared by Teheran’s plans, the more so, since it harbors similar intentions. Iran’s plans to pump out up to 200 million cubic meters of water from the Caspian Sea for desalination “is not an ecological risk,” says Azerbaijan’s Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Guseingulu Bagirov.

He believes that melting snow in the mountains raises the level of the Caspian every year. “The amount of water the Caspian gets is greater than the amount Iran plans to take out. I do not think that from the ecological point of view this will cause negative effects on the Sea,” he said. The Ecology Ministry said that the idea of desalinating the Caspian Sea for irrigation was being studied in Azerbaijan, too.

In the meantime, some Caspian countries have already used sea water after desalination for quite sometime. On the Turkmen coast of the Caspian there are three desalination plants. The largest of them has a capacity of 35,000 cubic meters a day. Apparently, this is the reason why Turkmenistan keeps quiet about the Iranian project.

Kazakhstan has its own desalination facility, too. “In the city of Aktau (former Shevchenko) a gas-fuelled unit has operated on the site of a nuclear-powered beacon for about ten years. We take an annual 18 million cubic meters of water from the Caspian,” Zhiyenbayev said.

At the same time everybody prefers to say nothing about the sad fate of Aral – a land-locked salt water lake in Central Asia, on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the 1960s the level of the lake (and the amount of water in it) began to decline drastically, when water began to be taken for irrigation from the main rivers feeding it - the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya. The death of Lake Aral is considered the worst ecological disaster of last century.

MOSCOW, April 18