December 8, 2023

‘I used to jump from this rock into the sea just 10 years ago,” says Azamat Sarsenbayev, a 33-year-old videographer and environmental activist. “Now people are sitting on rocks that were once under water. I remember, as a kid, the sea was much deeper.”

On his Instagram page, Sarsenbayev highlights the natural beauty of the Mangystau area of western Kazakhstan where he grew up, including stunning drone footage of the thousands of flamingos that migrate here.

But he also documents pollution and environmental issues, including evidence of what is now an incontestable fact: the Caspian Sea is shrinking – at an unprecedented speed.

An interactive graphic showing how the Caspian Sea has shrunk between 2006 and 2022.
How the Caspian Sea has changed between 2006 and 2022

The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water, and its coastline – put at 4,237 miles (6,819km) in 2017 – is shared by five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. It is also the shallowest – in some areas the water is only about 4 metres deep.

Azamat Sarsenbayev, an environmental activist in Mangystau, Kazakhstan.
Azamat Sarsenbayev holds out stones to show how an area that was once covered by water is now rocky ground.

  • Azamat Sarsenbayev in Mangystau, Kazakhstan. The environmental activist holds out broken shells to show how the sea once covered the rocky ground where he is standing

According to a forthcoming report by Kazakhstan’s Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology, the Caspian Sea is approaching the lowest level of 29 metres below sea level, recorded in 1977; the average annual level in 2023 is already below this.

The rate at which the sea level is falling has also accelerated in recent years. For example, the average rate of decline over the past three years is about 23.3cm a year.

In June, the local Aktau authority declared a state of emergency over the critically low level of the sea.

People stand on and beneath a pier that was originally built in water in the Caspian Sea.
View of grass and stones beneath the pier that was built in water in the Caspian Sea, Mangystau, west Kazakhstan.

The decline is particularly concerning, given the fate of the Aral Sea in central Asia, which was once the world’s fourth-largest lake but is now barely visible on satellite images.

The Caspian’s drop in sea level is most noticeable on its shallow northern coast. Kaydak bay has vanished, following Dead Kultuk bay, which was lost at the end of the last century.

Habitats are becoming more susceptible to storm surges, extensive shoals are forming and the entire north-eastern coastline is shifting. Satellite images clearly show the extent by which, since 2006, the coastline has retreated.

The reasons the sea is shrinking are both natural and human-made. The main tributaries of the Caspian Sea – the Volga and the Ural, both of which originate in Russia – have lost a lot of water. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures are factors, but so, too, is growing water extraction due to human activity: on the Russian side, the Ural River already has 19 dams and large reservoirs.

Meanwhile, Aktau is mushrooming. Originally a small uranium-mining settlement on the steppes, it has been transformed by a new nuclear power station and a desalination plant into a small city; the oil and gas industry has led to a further boom. The limited desalination system is barely sufficient to sustain the demand for water.

Blocks of flats in Aktau with murals depicting notable female military figures from the second world war.

  • Aktau flats with murals of Kazakh heroines from the second world war. Khiuaz Dospanova was a pilot and the first female Kazakh officer in the Soviet air force. Behind her is Manshuk Mametova, a machine gunner who became the first Kazakh woman to be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union

An oil pump and camel in the Mangystau region, west Kazakhstan.
A second world war monument in Aktau.

“Every time I see a new building being raised, I think about where it will get the water from,” says Assal Baimukanova, a researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology.

Baimukanova is among a team of 15 carrying out fieldwork on the sea, including researching the unique species of Caspian seal, whose population has fallen from about 1 million at the start of the 20th century to an estimated 70,000 now and landed it on the IUCN red list of endangered species, as warmer winters cause the loss of ice cover, making it harder for newborn pups to survive.

Assal Baimukanova stands among the estimated 10 tonnes of rubbish collected from the Caspian Sea over 20 days

About 125 miles northwards across the steppe is the small military base and coastal village of Fort Shevchenko, where the fishing association has 811 members. Many of their families have been fishing for generations; Akimzhanov Daniyar took over from his father and grandfather.

Two men in an open small boat with a large ship in the left of the picture

  • Akimzhanov Daniyar, president of the Fort Shevchenko fishing association. Behind him is Mir Zholdybaev, who has been fishing in the Caspian Sea for nearly 50 years

Daniyar has seen the conditions change enormously – and not just the shrinking sea. On a boat trip, he indicates the rigs and hotels catering to the oil industry: the Kashagan field, discovered in 2000, is the largest outside the Middle East, and is being developed by the Agip Kazakhstan North Caspian Operating Company, a consortium that includes some of the world’s biggest oil companies, such as Eni, Shell, ExxonMobil and Total.

Ever since the consortium began to drill for oil, water pollution has worsened. In December 2022, the mysterious deaths of 2,500 seals made international news.

A poster about the endangered Caspian seal on a beach next to the Caspian Sea.

  • A century ago, the population of Caspian seals was estimated to be in the millions but now they number about 70,000

“We see many dead gulls and fish and, sadly, many seals killed by pollution,” he says. Later, in his kitchen, he shows photographs he had taken on his phone. “Only last year we found at least 400 [dead] animals, and the same the year before.”

The Kazakh government is taking small steps at conservation. It has established a protected northern zone for seals and sturgeon. But with five different countries sharing the Caspian, information on the status of the marine life remains out of reach – despite being essential.

As studies predict the Caspian’s level could fall even further, by 9-18 metres or more, and with the area shrinking by more than a quarter before the end of this century, a political agreement between the countries is crucial to help protect it.

A power station near the shore with cows grazing in the marsh

  • The nuclear power station at Aktau, on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Mangystau, western Kazakhstan

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