Caspian Basin: The Energy Boom and the Region's "99 Percent"

The history of the Caspian Basin in the post-Soviet era basically revolves around two things -- energy and ethnic conflict. This photo essay documents the economic and social ramifications of energy-sector development in Azerbaijan.


Post-Soviet boom times in Azerbaijan began back in 1994, when the so-called "Contract of the Century" was signed covering the exploration of the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli oil fields in the Caspian Sea. Since then, the Azerbaijani government has reaped billions in profits, a select-few, mainly people who are well-connected to top government officials, have prospered. At the same time, energy wealth has not brought relief for the country's social maladies, including rampant corruption, poverty and unemployment. Over the past two decades, the gap between rich and poor has only widened in Azerbaijan.

While foreign energy companies have invested millions of dollars into developing offshore oil and natural gas fields, the detritus of Azerbaijan's first energy boom, which occurred at the outset of the 20th century, is turning many inhabited coastal areas into toxic wastelands of oil lakes and dump yards.

Around the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, Baku was a drab place. Today, the city is vibrant with nightlife. With the influx of foreign money and entertainment, Western bars and restaurants have sprung up to serve the thin layer of society that has benefited from the energy boom. But while drunk and jolly foreigners roam the streets, high heels stomp on disco floors, and Baku beams spotlights into the night sky, people in most Azerbaijani villages live without gas and water, and enjoy only a few hours of electricity each day.

Editor's Note: 
Rena Effendi is an Azerbaijani freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Cairo. Her earlier documentary work focused on the oil industry's effects on people's lives in her native Azerbaijan. As a result she followed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, collecting and photographing stories along the way. This work of six years was published in 2009 in her first book, "Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives Along the Pipeline." Several of the photos from her book are included in this reflective photo essay.