The Silent Threat of Falling Caspian Sea Levels
The water level of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, is falling dramatically, and this is likely to intensify in the coming years. If left unaddressed, this problem will pose significant environmental, economic, and social problems for the Caspian region. The Caspian Sea boasts abundant natural resources and is a strategically important trade corridor connecting Asia and Europe. It presents enormous economic opportunities for its littoral states–Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan–to diversify their export and import channels. The Caspian offers considerable benefits that could play a particularly crucial role in the post-COVID economic recovery, but growing concerns over the Caspian’s falling water levels presage disruptions.
A recent study by German and Dutch researchers has set off alarm bells with its projection of an unprecedented drop in water level.1 The study predicts that, due to increased evaporation rates, largely driven by greenhouse gas-induced climate change, water levels in the Caspian Sea will drop by 9 to 18 meters by the end of the twenty-first century. Substantially lower water levels will create serious problems for the region, including threats to the Caspian’s fishing industry and water infrastructure, as well as the food and energy security of littoral states.
These are not the first bleak projections that researchers have presented on the future of the Caspian. In 2017, a paper published in the Geophysical Research Letters Journal reviewed three major sources influencing the Caspian Sea levels, water flows of rivers emptying into the Caspian Sea, precipitation, and evaporation, and cited evaporation as the main reason for a decline in water levels.2 Given that evaporation is contingent on temperature, adaptation rather than mitigation strategies will be critical for countries affected by these changes. Air and water temperatures, and, hence, evaporation levels, will continue to rise regardless of local efforts to reduce emissions. The case of the Caspian Sea is illustrative of the destructive effects of greenhouse gas emissions.