Regional Attempts at Environmental Protection in the Caspian Sea Basin

Although the Caspian Sea was at one point connected to the world’s oceans, it has been landlocked for millions of years now. The Caspian’s isolation had contributed to the evolution of its unique ecosystem, but it has also proven a weakness. Harmful pollutants cannot be flushed out an instead accumulate in the sea. It has been a challenge for the five states that surround the Caspian Sea – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – to build a cooperative agreement to protect the environment. While the Soviet Union and Iran respected informal understandings for the management of the sea’s resources, the dissolution of the USSR required the new littoral states to renegotiate agreements to address the main environmental problems of the sea.

The ecological problems facing the Caspian Sea are interconnected and stem from prioritization of economic development over consideration for the natural environment. Hydrocarbon pollution, agrochemical runoff, and biodiversity loss constitute the major symptoms of environmental degradation in the Caspian.

Oil exploration and exploitation is a dirty process; old technology means that the process from the Soviet era continues to release pollutants from oil fields into the sea. Outbreaks of Mnemiopsis leidyi in the 1990s delivered a second blow to the status of biodiversity in the sea. [2]

As the environment inched closer to collapse, political developments threatened the status quo of the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 completely altered the geopolitical dynamics in the Caspian basin by transforming what was originally an Iranian-Soviet entity into a five-state one. Ambiguity surrounding the applicability of Soviet-era treaties meant the Caspian littoral states were unsure of the countries’ responsibilities for the Caspian’s environmental condition. As early as June 1991, the five littoral states began to develop a legal framework and to establish norms and obligations for the protection of the sea. In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian states signed a flurry of agreements and ministerial declarations, few of which carried weight. In 1998, the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP) was founded to oversee regional dialogue, encourage policy development, and direct resource mobilization. [3]

The CEP, in conjunction with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), worked with the Caspian states to negotiate an overarching legal framework for environmental protection. In 2003, the five littoral states finally signed the Tehran Convention, “an umbrella legal instrument laying down general requirements and the institutional mechanism for environmental protection in the Caspian Sea region.” [4] In addition to the broad components of the Tehran Convention, the littoral states also drafted four specialized, objective-oriented protocols that addressed environmental impact assessments, land-based pollution, oil pollution, and biodiversity.

Although it took many years for littoral states to sign the Tehran Convention, its entry into force constituted an important step toward regional cooperation. Nevertheless, cooperation amongst the littoral states faces many serious challenges. The strengths and weaknesses of Caspian environmental cooperation can be evaluated according to a metric set out by Peter Haas, Robert Keohane, and Marc Levy. In the book Institutions for the Earth: Sources of Effective International Environmental Protection, these authors argue that the effectiveness of environmental institutions should be examined in terms of the their impact on political behavior. Their metric for evaluating regime effectiveness, summed up in the “3-Cs,” summarizes the three functions of international environmental regimes as: increasing environmental concern, enhancing the contractual environment, and increasing national capacity. [5]

First the contractual environment is insecure. There are no other instances of multilateral cooperation in the Caspian, and most agreements are bilateral. In addition, the inability of the littoral states to determine the Caspian’s legal status, which affects the development of oil and gas resources, complicates the distribution of responsibilities for the sea’s environmental condition. Second, government capacity for enacting environmental policies is generally low. Capacity can be understood as technical or scientific resources, but it also should be considered in terms of effective and responsive government performance. [6] Many scientific research centers exist in the Caspian region, but Caspian governments are not sufficiently funding projects or environmental initiatives at the federal or local level. Finally, low government concern for the environment remains a recurring problem in many of the littoral states. This is largely due to the perceived incompatibility of environmental protection and post-Soviet states’ goals for economic growth. The concept of sustainable development has not taken off in the Caspian region, and Caspian governments generally disregard the value of protecting environmental resources—despite the negative economic consequences of collapsed fishing stocks.

Although Caspian environmental governance scores low on the “3-Cs” metric, the prospects for a successful regional environmental regime are not abysmal. Other regional initiatives, such as those in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas have been in place much longer than the Caspian regime and offer several lessons for success in the Caspian. If the leaders and scientists working for environmental protection in the Caspian can incorporate these practices, the prospects for broader and better-enforced environmental policy in the region do not appear so dim.   


  1. Christopher C. Joyner and Kelly Jack Walters, “The Caspian Conundrum: Reflections on the Interplay Between Law, the Environment and Geopolitics,” The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 21:2 (2006), 196.
  2. Aboulghasem Roohi and Ameneh Sajjadi, “Mnemiopsis leidyi Invasion and Biodiversity Changes in the Caspian Sea,” in Ecosystems Biodiversity, ed. Oscar Grillo. (Intech, 2011)
  3. Caspian Environment Programme, “Mission,” last updated March 18 2013, accessed online March 5, 2014
  4. “Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea,” November 4 2003, accessed online March 5, 2014
  5. Peter M. Haas, Robert O. Keohane, and Marc A. Levy, Institutions fort he Earth: Sources of Effective International Environmental Protection (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993): 19-21, 397-426.
  6. Stacy D. VanDeveer and Geoffrey Dabelko, “It’s Capacity Stupid,” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 3 (May 2001).

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Colleen Wood is a junior at Georgetown University. She studies Science, Technology, and International Affairs, with a focus on the intersection between environmental issues and national security. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.