Government officials in Kazakhstan have raised the alarm over what they say is the critically low level of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest enclosed body of water.
City hall in Aktau, the capital of the western Mangystau region, said in a statement on June 8 that it was declaring a state of emergency over a situation that it says poses a grave risk to the maritime industry.
On the same day, Ecology Minister Zulfia Suleimenova described the crisis over the Caspian as "quite complex” and attributed the ongoing contraction to dropping levels in the Ural and Volga Rivers.
The troubled health of those rivers has in turn been attributed to a lack of snowfall over the winter, increased water consumption, and the retention of water for use at hydroelectric power stations in Russia.
The Caspian Sea has shorelines in five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Of these, Kazakhstan’s section is the shallowest, which is what has prompted officials there to raise the alarm first of all.
Suleimenova said that while other Caspian littoral states have also drawn attention to the issue of the sea’s shrinkage, effective measures are still wanting.
Declaring a state of emergency marks a new tack for Kazakhstan. The Ecology Ministry has previously been reluctant to admit the existence of the problem. In June 2021, the ministry stated that "fluctuations in the Caspian Sea level" were natural and cyclical in nature. It noted at the time that the level had from the 1930s to the late 1970s dropped by three meters, before rising again.
The retreat of the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan’s coast began in 2005. Since then, the level has dropped by one-and-a-half meters. And yet whenever environmentalists and activists have shared their concerns by posting photos and videos of the exposed, stone-strewn seabed extending at times for hundreds of meters to the shoreline, the authorities have largely been mute.
The change of stance appears to have been occasioned by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev weighing in.
“The issue of declining water levels in the Caspian Sea is of great concern,” Tokayev said during a meeting with the public in the Mangystau region in November. “The causes and consequences of this phenomenon require careful and comprehensive study.”